Geneva, 13 July 2023 – The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) release the Assessments of the health impacts of the non-sugar sweetener aspartame: “IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans (IARC Group 2B) and JECFA reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg body weight.”
This was the first time that IARC has evaluated aspartame and the third time for JECFA. After reviewing the available scientific literature, both evaluations noted limitations in the available evidence for cancer (and other health effects). IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) based on limited evidence for cancer in humans (specifically, for hepatocellular carcinoma, which is a type of liver cancer). There was also limited evidence for cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence related to the possible mechanisms for causing cancer. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally. Every year, 1 in 6 people die from cancer. Science is continuously expanding to assess the possible initiating or facilitating factors of cancer, in the hope of reducing these numbers and the human toll.
Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO said: “the assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.” Dr Mary Schubauer-Berigan of the IARC Monographs programme added: “the findings of limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals, and of limited mechanistic evidence on how carcinogenicity may occur, underscore the need for more research to refine our understanding on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard.”
JECFA’s risk assessments determine the probability of a specific type of harm, i.e., cancer, to occur under certain conditions and levels of exposure. It is not unusual for JECFA to factor IARC classifications into its deliberations. “JECFA also considered the evidence on cancer risk, in animal and human studies, and concluded that the evidence of an association between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans is not convincing,” said Dr Moez Sanaa, WHO’s Head of the Standards and Scientific Advice on Food and Nutrition Unit. “We need better studies with longer follow-up and repeated dietary questionnaires in existing cohorts. We need randomized controlled trials, including studies of mechanistic pathways relevant to insulin regulation, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, particularly as related to carcinogenicity.”