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Back 14 May, 2024 - Thrive!


Could sweeteners make you ill?

Could sweeteners make you ill?

Does aspartame cause cancer? Let’s look at the facts.
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In July last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report stating that the artificial sweetener aspartame could possibly be carcinogenic (cause cancer) to humans. Now, before you run to your kitchen and rid yourself of each and every item that contains a trace of this popular ingredient (found in thousands of products in grocery stores across the globe), have a sip of calming chamomile tea (perhaps swopping the sweetener for honey this time) and read on. Let’s have a look at the facts.


What is aspartame?

In 1981, aspartame entered the market as a low-calorie sweetener, gaining vast popularity around the world as a healthier substitute for sugar. In 1974 (seven years before its release), and again in 1981, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it as a safe additive for the general population.

Today, the FDA refers to aspartame as one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply chain. In fact, they have reviewed more than 100 studies “to identify possible toxic effects, including studies that assess effects on the reproductive and nervous systems, carcinogenicity, and metabolism”.


But why is the WHO concerned?

After evaluating findings, the WHO noted some positive associations between aspartame consumption and hepatocellular carcinoma (a form of liver cancer), thereby classifying aspartame’s potential to cause cancer as “limited”. This means that, although there is some evidence suggesting a possible link, said research cannot be considered as “sufficient to infer a causal relationship”.

In short: a lot of additional studies and research must still be done, including taking factors such as dietary patterns and higher-risk conditions such as diabetes into consideration. For example, more often than not, diabetics opt for diet products, thereby ingesting significantly higher quantities of aspartame than the norm.


What is a safe amount?

Both the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), jointly known as JECFA, consider 40 mg per kilogram of body weight per day safe for human consumption. To reach that amount, an adult weighing 70 kg would need to consume more than nine to 14 diet soft drink cans (each containing 200 mg to 300 mg of aspartame) per day.

The FDA approved a tad higher quantity of 50 mg/kg per day, equating to an average of 75 packets of commercial aspartame. So, ask yourself: could or would you ever consume that amount of sweetener?


What we know for sure

  • JECFA as well as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) cited “limited evidence” that aspartame causes cancer in humans and reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake.
  • According to Dr Moez Sanaa, the WHO’s Head of the Standards and Scientific Advice on Food and Nutrition Unit, JECFA reviewed the available evidence and “concluded that the evidence of an association between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans is not convincing”.

Furthermore, both committees have taken steps to ensure the independence and reliability of their evaluations. New evidence is continually monitored and support for independent research groups (to conduct further studies) remain a priority.

In conclusion, as in most cases, moderation is key. Watch your sweetener intake and avoid unhealthy options like soft drinks and processed foods. But should you worry about the sweetener you’ve just added to your second cup of chamomile tea? The answer is short and sweet: no. Have another sip and enjoy!

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