According to recent reports, World Health Organisation (WHO), the leading global health body, is set to declare one of the world's most common artificial sweeteners — Aspartame — as a possible carcinogen next month.
This declaration will pit it against the food industry and regulators.
Reportedly, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), will list aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time, in July.
Aspartame is used in various products, including Coca-Cola diet sodas, Mars' Extra chewing gum, and certain Snapple drinks.
The IARC ruling, which was finalised earlier this month after a meeting of the group's external experts, aims to assess the potential hazard of a substance based on all the published evidence. The ruling does not consider the safe consumption levels of a product for individuals.
Separate advice for individuals regarding safe consumption levels is provided by the joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), along with determinations from national regulators.
Similar rulings by IARC in the past for different substances have raised concerns among consumers about their use, caused lawsuits, and pressured manufacturers to recreate recipes and switch to alternatives.
JECFA, the WHO committee on additives, is also reviewing the use of Aspartame this year. Its meeting started at the end of June, and it will announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes its decision public — on 14 July.
Letters from US and Japanese regulators, as reported by Reuters, indicate that industry and regulators are concerned that conducting both processes simultaneously could cause confusion.
According to WHO, the artificial sweetener has "possible" links to cancer. This does not necessarily mean it directly causes the illness, but there is a small amount of evidence linking its consumption to people who have been diagnosed.
The IARC has two more serious categories — "probably carcinogenic to humans" and "carcinogenic to humans". These three categories list over 1,100 different things, including ingredients in food and drink, living conditions, and dangerous activities.
In the past, it controversially classified working night shifts and eating red meat as probably cancer-causing, and suggested that using mobile phones could possibly cause cancer.
Aspartame is commonly found in products labeled as "diet," "no," "low calorie," or "sugar free." It is often associated with diet fizzy drinks like Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, Sprite, and Fanta Zero, as well as diet squash, cordial drinks, and certain foods.
The presence of Aspartame is known in sugar-free gum, frozen desserts, reduced sugar ketchup, specific breakfast cereals, Muller Corner yoghurts, and energy bars.
In addition to food, Aspartame has been added to medicines and supplements, including cough drops and vitamin gummies. It is also used in instant coffee, sugar-free coffee syrups, and dairy-free milks.
Since the 1980s, food companies have been using it when the diet industry boomed.
However, the news is likely to bring about a huge change in the global food manufacturing market.
When it comes to replacing Diet Coke, the only real alternative is to switch to regular Coca-Cola. Nevertheless, dieticians and dentists have long been concerned about the high amounts of sugar in fizzy drinks.
"The reports 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, executive director of the International Council of Beverages Associations.
Notably, an alternative, which is Stevia, a natural sweetener, can safely sweeten drinks and food. It is also widely used as a sweetener.
According to media reports, sources close to the IARC state that listing Aspartame as a potential carcinogen aims to encourage further research, which will assist agencies, consumers, and manufacturers in reaching more definitive conclusions.
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