World Health Organization to assess cancer risk of diet-soda sweetener aspartame

The World Health Organization is planning to release two new reports on the safety of aspartame, the popular artificial sweetener in drinks like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, on July 14.

The organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has assessed the potential carcinogenic effect of the substance, a spokesperson told Bloomberg. Another group, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, will also provide an updated risk assessment, touching on the acceptable daily intake of aspartame and other possible adverse effects of consuming it. The groups will release their determinations together.

Last summer, the US Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to the WHO expressing concerns about the forthcoming reports, saying the “concurrent review of aspartame by both IARC and JECFA would be detrimental to the scientific advice process and should not occur.” It preferred that only JECFA, a panel administered by the WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, review the risks associated with aspartame. In response, the WHO told HHS that the groups were “working closely together to prevent divergent scientific opinions.”

The US Food and Drug Administration has considered aspartame safe since 1974, but others have questioned that finding. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has called aspartame the low-calorie sweetener of “most concern” because, it says, there is “compelling evidence that it causes cancer and is a potent carcinogen.” It nominated the ingredient for evaluation by IARC in 2014 and 2019. 

‘Broad Consensus’

“There is broad consensus in the scientific and regulatory community that aspartame is safe. It’s a conclusion reached time and time again by food-safety agencies around the world,” the American Beverage Association told Bloomberg in a statement. Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. declined to comment. 

These reports will follow a May WHO report finding that artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss.

The IARC assessment will classify aspartame into one of four categories: carcinogenic to humans, probably carcinogenic to humans, possibly carcinogenic to humans or “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.”

In advance of the forthcoming reports, the International Council of Beverages Associations is distributing information that it says shows the safety of aspartame. The trade group is concerned that the WHO reports might conflict or confuse consumers, despite the assurances provided to HHS.

“The evaluations are complementary,” a WHO spokesperson told Bloomberg, and have been done in “close collaboration.” –BLOOMBERG