EAccording to a new expert assessment, a sweetener commonly used in soft drinks, yoghurt and chewing gum may cause cancer in humans – but it should not pose a problem in the usual amounts consumed. It’s about aspartame, one of eleven sweeteners approved in the EU. Despite the new classification, the World Health Organization (WHO) is not changing its guidelines. She sees no evidence in the underlying studies that consumption within the recommended maximum values could be dangerous. According to the current state of knowledge, anyone who adheres to this does not expose themselves to a higher risk of cancer, the WHO reported.
“A soft drink now and again, or chewing gum: you shouldn’t worry about that as things stand,” said Francesco Branca, director of the WHO division for nutrition and food safety. “We’re not recommending that consumers avoid sweeteners entirely, but we do recommend caution.” If you’re in the supermarket considering whether to buy soft drinks with sugar or with sweeteners, it’s best to consider a third option, said Branca: “Drink water.” – or other beverages without sweeteners.
Limited evidence of association with liver cancer
The new classification as “possibly carcinogenic” for aspartame comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon. It belongs to the WHO. The IARC published its findings in the journal The Lancet Oncology on Friday. She saw limited evidence linking it to a specific form of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) in three human studies.
Important to know: The IARC experts only assess whether a substance could in principle cause cancer. They don’t take into account how much of it a person would need to consume to be at risk of disease, explained Mary Schubauer-Berigan. She directs the IARC Monographs program responsible for classification.
Risk analyzes for humans are carried out by other institutions, such as the WHO Committee on Food Additives and the UN Agricultural Organization FAO (JECFA) – or food safety authorities such as the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The recommended maximum amount of aspartame is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. A person weighing 70 kilograms would only reach the limit if he drinks nine to 14 cans of conventionally sized diet drinks with a high aspartame content in one day, the WHO reported.
The IARC experts found three out of hundreds of human cancer studies that looked at the effects of artificial sweeteners. They also reviewed studies in mice and rats. However, all studies had certain shortcomings for the assessment of aspartame, they admitted. Therefore, IARC emphasizes that the evidence is limited. According to Schubauer-Berigan and Branca, the new classification is a call to science. More studies are urgently needed.