The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to declare the popular artificial sweetener aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" next month, a move that could send shockwaves through the food industry.
According to Reuters, the WHO's cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), had a meeting with external experts to determine if the additive poses a potential hazard or not. They are expected to officially announce its decision on July 14.
The report notes that the ruling does not take into account how much a person must consume before it becomes harmful. This data is being assessed this year by the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), and they will release their findings the same day, July 14.
JECFA has held since 1981 that an adult would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda a day for it to be a risk depending on the weight of the adult and the amount of aspartame in the product.
"The dose makes the poison," Professor Oliver Jones, an Expert in Chemistry at RMIT University in Melbourne said, "For example, we know UV light in sunlight causes cancer, that’s why we put on sunscreen at the beach – but we don’t put on sunscreen when we go outside in winter even though we are still exposed to sunlight, why? Because the dose is lower in winter."
According to a spokesperson for the IARC, the two organizations' reports were "complementary" of each other and are "the first fundamental step to understanding carcinogenicity," but they wouldn't comment further because both reports are confidential until their release.
The IARC uses four different classifications when rating how harmful a substance is. They are carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic, and not classifiable. The rating is based on how strong the evidence is, not how dangerous the substance is.
Other items classified in the "probably cancer-causing" class are red meat, working overnight, and cell phone use.
The secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA) Fances Hunt-Wood claimed, "IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research."
"Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in history, with over 90 food safety agencies across the globe declaring it is safe, including the European Food Safety Authority, which conducted the most comprehensive safety evaluation of aspartame to date," he said.
Critics say that the release could cause people to consume more sugar instead of opting for the low-calorie sweetener. "Public health authorities should be deeply concerned that this leaked opinion contradicts decades of high-quality scientific evidence and could needlessly mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe no- and low-sugar options - all on the basis of low-quality studies," said Kate Loatman, the executive director for the International Council of Beverages.
"We remain confident in the safety of aspartame given the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and positive safety determinations by food safety authorities in more than 90 countries around the world."
Dr. John Sievenpiper, an expert in medicine from the University of Toronto said, "The best available evidence from large population studies shows that low and no-calorie sweeteners as a replacement strategy for added sugars is associated with reductions in important public health outcomes such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and death."
The ruling is also expected to raise questions over the IARC's role when it comes to listing the safety of products and draw conflict between the organization and the food industry.
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