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Diet Coke sweetener could be declared as 'possibly carcinogenic'

Artificial sweetener found in Diet Coke will be declared as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’, report claims

  • Leaked report says WHO cancer group could declare aspartame carcinogenic
  • READ MORE: Teen died after his brain tumour was mistaken for ear infection

An artificial sweetener used in Diet Coke will be declared a potential cancer risk to humans, a bombshell report claimed today.

Aspartame will be officially listed as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ in the World Health Organization’s reclassification, according to insiders. 

Aspartame — which entered the market in the 1980s — is also added to Mars’ Extra chewing gum and some Snapple drinks.

The move will occur next month following a review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s cancer research arm, sources told Reuters.

The IARC ruling is intended to assess whether something is a potential hazard or not, based on all the published evidence.

It does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume.

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in products like Diet Coke, could be declared as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ by the WHO

This advice for individuals comes from a separate WHO expert committee on food additives, known as the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), alongside national regulators.

JECFA, the WHO committee on additives, is also reviewing aspartame use this year.

Its meeting began at the end of June and it is due to announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes public its decision — on July 14, it was claimed.

Since 1981, the JECFA has said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. 

For example, an adult weighing 60kg (132lbs) would have to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda — depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage — every day to be at risk. 

What are artificial sweeteners? 

Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie or calorie-free chemical substances used instead of sugar to sweeten foods and drinks.

They’re found in thousands of products, from drinks, desserts and ready meals, to cakes, chewing gum and toothpaste.

Popular sweeteners approved for use in the UK include aspartame, sucralose and stevia.

Both Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute have said sweeteners do not cause cancer.

And all sweeteners in the undergo strict safety tests before they can be used in food and drink.

Advocates argue sweeteners reduce calorie intake, control blood sugar levels and prevent tooth decay.

However, studies have suggested sweeteners can stimulate appetite and therefore increase the risk of weight gain and obesity.

Its view has been widely shared by national regulators, including in the US and Europe.

An IARC spokesperson said that both the IARC and JECFA committees’ findings were confidential until July.

But they added they were ‘complementary’, with IARC’s conclusion representing ‘the first fundamental step to understand carcinogenicity’. 

The additives committee ‘conducts risk assessment, which determines the probability of a specific type of harm (e.g., cancer) to occur under certain conditions and levels of exposure’.

However, industry and regulators fear that holding both processes at around the same time could be confusing, according to letters from US and Japanese regulators seen by Reuters.

‘We kindly ask both bodies to coordinate their efforts in reviewing aspartame to avoid any confusion or concerns among the public,’ Nozomi Tomita, an official from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, wrote in a letter dated March 27 to WHO’s deputy director general, Zsuzsanna Jakab.

The letter also called for the conclusions of both bodies to be released on the same day, as is now happening. 

The Japanese mission in Geneva, where the WHO is based, did not respond to a request for comment.

The IARC’s rulings can have huge impact. 

In 2015, its committee similarly concluded that glyphosate, a herbicide, is ‘probably carcinogenic’. 

Years later, even as other bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) contested this assessment, companies were still feeling the effects of the decision. 

Germany´s Bayer in 2021 lost its third appeal against US court verdicts that awarded damages to customers blaming their cancers on use of its glyphosate-based weed-killers.

The IARC’s decisions have also faced criticism for sparking needless alarm over hard to avoid substances or situations. 

Aspartame can also be found in a variety of other sugar-free products like chewing gum

It has previously put working overnight and consuming red meat into its ‘probably cancer-causing’ class, and using mobile phones as ‘possibly cancer-causing’, similar to aspartame.

‘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, the 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’.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, a body that includes Coca-Cola in its members, said the leak was concerning. 

Its executive director Kate Loatman said: ‘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.

‘Even IARC agrees it is not the appropriate authority to undertake risk assessment based on actual consumption and that it “does not make health recommendations”.

‘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.’

Aspartame has been extensively studied for years. 

Last year, an observational study in France among 100,000 adults showed people who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners – including aspartame – had a slightly higher cancer risk.

It followed a study from the Ramazzini Institute in Italy in the early 2000s, which reported that some cancers in mice and rats were linked to aspartame.

However, the first study could not prove that aspartame caused the increased cancer risk, and questions have been raised about the methodology of the second study, including by EFSA, which assessed it.

Aspartame is authorised for use globally by regulators who have reviewed all the available evidence, and major food and beverage makers have for decades defended their use of the ingredient. 

The IARC said it had assessed 1,300 studies in its review.

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.

Listing aspartame as a possible carcinogen is intended to motivate more research, said the sources close to the IARC, which will help agencies, consumers and manufacturers draw firmer conclusions.

But it will also likely ignite debate once again over the IARC’s role, as well as the safety of sweeteners more generally.

Last month, the WHO published guidelines advising consumers not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control. The guidelines caused a furore in the food industry, which argues they can be helpful for consumers wanting to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet.


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide 

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