In a groundbreaking development, one of the world’s most prevalent artificial sweeteners, aspartame, is anticipated to be labeled as a potential carcinogen by a prominent international health organization next month. According to insider sources familiar with the matter, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO) responsible for cancer research, is set to declare aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in July. This decision puts the sweetener at odds with both the food industry and regulatory bodies.

Aspartame is extensively used in various products, ranging from diet sodas produced by Coca-Cola to Extra chewing gum manufactured by Mars and certain Snapple beverages. The IARC’s ruling, finalized in a recent meeting of the organization’s external experts, aims to evaluate the potential hazards of substances based on existing published evidence. It should be noted that this assessment does not consider the safe consumption limits for individuals, which are determined separately by the WHO’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and national regulatory bodies.

Past IARC rulings on different substances have caused public concerns, triggered legal actions, and compelled manufacturers to reformulate their products or seek alternatives. Consequently, criticisms have arisen regarding the public’s confusion resulting from the IARC’s assessments.

The JECFA, responsible for reviewing the use of aspartame this year, commenced its meeting at the end of June and is scheduled to release its findings on July 14, coinciding with the IARC’s decision. Since 1981, the JECFA has maintained that aspartame is safe to consume within established daily limits. National regulators, including those in the United States and Europe, have widely endorsed this viewpoint.

A spokesperson for the IARC confirmed that the findings of both committees, IARC and JECFA, will remain confidential until July but emphasized that they are complementary. The spokesperson clarified that the IARC’s conclusion represents the primary step in understanding the potential carcinogenicity of a substance, while the additives committee conducts risk assessments to determine the probability of harm under specific conditions and levels of exposure.

However, concerns have been raised by industry and regulators regarding the concurrent timing of both processes, as revealed in letters from U.S. and Japanese regulators reviewed by Reuters. These stakeholders fear that the simultaneous assessments may cause confusion among the public. In a letter dated March 27, Nozomi Tomita, an official from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, urged both bodies to coordinate their efforts and suggested releasing the conclusions on the same day. The response from the Japanese mission in Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, remains undisclosed.

The International Sweeteners Association (ISA), which includes members such as Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, and Cargill, expressed apprehension about the IARC’s review, characterizing it as scientifically incomplete and heavily reliant on discredited research. Frances Hunt-Wood, the secretary general of ISA, stated that IARC is not a food safety authority, and their assessment of aspartame may mislead consumers.

Aspartame has undergone extensive studies over the years. Notably, a recent observational study conducted in France among 100,000 adults indicated a slightly elevated cancer risk among individuals who consumed higher amounts of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.

This ongoing debate highlights the challenges faced by the food and beverage industry in striking a balance between taste preferences and health concerns. Soft drink giant PepsiCo’s previous recipe adjustments exemplify the industry’s struggle, as the company removed aspartame from its sodas in 2015, reintroduced it a year later, and ultimately eliminated it again in 2020.

The “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields” associated with using mobile phones are “possibly cancer-causing”. Like aspartame, this means there is either limited evidence they can cause cancer in humans, sufficient evidence in animals, or strong evidence about the characteristics.

“IARC is not a food safety body and their review of aspartame is not scientifically comprehensive and is based heavily on widely discredited research,” Frances Hunt-Wood, secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), said.

The body, whose members include Mars Wrigley, a Coca-Cola unit and Cargill, said it had “serious concerns with the IARC review, which may mislead consumers”.

Aspartame has been extensively studied for years. Last year, an observational study in France among 100,000 adults showed that people who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners – including aspartame – had a slightly higher cancer risk.

Recent recipe tweaks by soft drinks giant Pepsico demonstrate the struggle the industry has when it comes to balancing taste preferences with health concerns. Pepsico removed aspartame from sodas in 2015, bringing it back a year later, only to remove it again in 2020.

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