Aspartame, one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners worldwide, is expected to be classified as a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a leading global health organization.
Anonymous sources familiar with the process revealed that the IARC will list aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in July. This decision is based on an evaluation of published evidence to determine potential hazards.
It is important to note that the IARC’s ruling does not consider the safe consumption levels of a product. This information is provided by a separate committee called the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), along with guidance from national regulators.
Despite this, previous IARC classifications have caused concern among consumers, resulting in lawsuits and pressuring manufacturers to reformulate their products or seek alternatives. Critics argue that the IARC’s assessments can be confusing for the general public.
In parallel with the IARC’s assessment, JECFA is also reviewing the use of aspartame this year. Their findings, to be announced on July 14, will coincide with the IARC’s decision. JECFA has previously deemed aspartame safe for consumption within accepted daily limits, a position shared by national regulators in the United States and Europe.
Both the IARC and JECFA committees’ findings are currently confidential, with an IARC spokesperson emphasizing their complementary nature. The IARC focuses on understanding the fundamental step of carcinogenicity, while JECFA conducts risk assessments to determine the probability of harm under specific conditions and levels of exposure.
Industry representatives and regulators have expressed concerns about the simultaneous processes conducted by the IARC and JECFA, fearing potential confusion. Requests have been made for coordinated efforts and the simultaneous release of both bodies’ conclusions to avoid any misunderstandings among the public. However, it is unclear whether these requests have been addressed.
The IARC’s previous rulings have had significant impacts. For instance, its classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015 resulted in ongoing legal battles and reputational damage for companies manufacturing glyphosate-based weedkillers. The IARC has faced criticism for causing unnecessary alarm in the past, categorizing activities like working overnight and consuming red meat as “probably cancer-causing” and suggesting that mobile phones are “possibly cancer-causing,” similar to its evaluation of aspartame.
Industry associations, such as the International Sweeteners Association and the International Council of Beverages Associations, have raised concerns about the IARC’s review process. They argue that the review relies on discredited research and may mislead consumers. Aspartame has undergone extensive studies, including an observational study in France linking higher artificial sweetener consumption, including aspartame, to a slightly elevated cancer risk. However, the causal relationship between aspartame and increased cancer risk could not be definitively established. Questions have also been raised about the methodology of certain studies.
Regulatory authorities globally have authorized the use of aspartame based on a comprehensive review of available evidence. Food and beverage manufacturers have defended their use of aspartame for decades. The IARC’s decision to classify aspartame as a possible carcinogen aims to encourage further research, helping agencies, consumers, and manufacturers to draw more definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, this classification will likely reignite debates about the role of the IARC and the safety of sweeteners in general.
In a related context, the World Health Organization recently published guidelines advising against the use of non-sugar sweeteners for weight control. These guidelines generated controversy in the food industry, which argues that such sweeteners can be helpful for individuals seeking to reduce their sugar intake.