Aspartame might be a ‘possible carcinogen’, but did you know night shifts and pickle are carcinogenic too?

IARC, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, is poised to assign this classification to aspartame for the first time in July.

BySumit Jha

Published Jul 04, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Jul 04, 2023 | 9:00 AM

While alcohol is categorised as a Group 1 carcinogen, pickle is categoried as a Group 2B carcinogen by IACR. (Creative Commons)

Aspartame — a widely used artificial sweetener found in various products, including diet sodas, sugar-free chewing gum, and certain beverages — is on the verge of being included on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) list of substances classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

According to a report by Reuters, IARC, the esteemed cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is poised to assign this classification to aspartame for the first time in July.

What is aspartame?

According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is used as a sugar substitute in various food and beverage products. It is a low-calorie sweetener that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Aspartame is commonly found in diet sodas, sugar-free chewing gum, table-top sweeteners, and certain processed foods labeled as “sugar-free” or “diet”.

It is used as a way to provide sweetness to these products without adding extra calories. The CDC notes that aspartame has been approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory agencies as a safe and low-calorie alternative to sugar.

Also Read: Aspartame may soon be named a ‘possible carcinogen’

Should you be worried?

In the US, the FDA regulates artificial sweeteners like aspartame. Before these products can be used, they undergo safety testing and must receive FDA approval.

Additionally, the FDA establishes an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener, which represents the maximum amount considered safe for daily consumption throughout a person’s lifetime.

For aspartame, the FDA has set the ADI at 50 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight per day. In the European Union, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regulates food additives and recommends a slightly lower ADI for aspartame at 40 mg/kg/day.

To provide some context, the FDA estimates that if all the added sugar in the diet of an average 60 kg person were replaced by aspartame, the resulting exposure would be approximately 8 to 9 mg/kg/day.

According to the EFSA, in order to reach the ADI of 40 mg/kg/day, a 60 kg adult would have to consume 12 cans of a diet soft drink daily (assuming it contained aspartame at the maximum permitted levels of use).

However, it’s important to note that aspartame is typically used at lower levels and the amounts found in soft drinks are often 3 to 6 times less than the maximum permitted levels. This means one would need to consume 36 cans or more to reach the ADI.

These figures help provide perspective on the levels of aspartame consumption relative to the established ADIs.

Also Read: No level of alcohol consumption is safe for health, warns WHO

What other agents are carcinogenic?

IACR has identified numerous elements and habits in our lives that are carcinogenic or have the potential to be carcinogenic. However, it does not specify the average daily intake, the ADI, above which these elements can be carcinogenic.

Later this month, aspartame may well join the list.

Group 1 (Carcinogenic to humans):

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Vicinity of aluminium production
  • Areca nut
  • Betel quid with tobacco/without tobacco
  • Coal gasification
  • Coke production
  • Engine exhaust, diesel
  • Estrogen-progestogen menopausal therapy
  • Leather dust
  • Opium consumption
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Consumption of processed meat
  • Salted fish, Chinese-style
  • Tobacco smoking, second-hand tobacco smoke
  • Ultraviolet radiation

Group 2A (Probably carcinogenic to humans)

  • Indoor emissions from household combustion of biomass fuel
  • Frying, emissions from high temperature
  • Malaria (caused by infection with Plasmodium falciparum in holoendemic areas)
  • Night shift work
  • Occupational exposures in petroleum refinery
  • Consumption of red meat
  • Very hot beverages at above 65°C (drinking)

Also Read: Consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to heart disease

Group 2B (Possibly carcinogenic to humans)

  • Aloe vera
  • Bitumen (used in road construction)
  • Carpentry and joinery
  • Marine diesel fuel
  • Occupational exposures in dry cleaning
  • Petrol
  • Metallic implants prepared as thin smooth films
  • Traditional Asian pickled vegetables
  • Occupational exposures in printing process
  • Work in textile manufacturing industry

Group 3 (Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity)

  • Chlorinated drinking water
  • Coal dust
  • Coffee (drinking)
  • Dental material
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Hair colouring products
  • Printing inks

Also Read: Does drinking bottle gourd juice help treat a heart attack? 

Does aspartame cause cancer?

Over the years, there have been persistent rumours and concerns linking aspartame to various health problems, including cancer.

One of the focal points of cancer concerns arose from studies conducted on rats by a group of Italian researchers, which indicated a potential increased risk of certain blood-related cancers such as leukaemias and lymphomas. However, subsequent reviews of the data from these studies have cast doubt on the reliability of their findings.

According to the American Cancer Society, when it comes to epidemiologic studies, which examine groups of people, the results regarding potential connections between aspartame and cancer (including blood-related cancers) have been inconclusive and inconsistent. These studies have not provided conclusive evidence of a consistent link between aspartame consumption and cancer.

The US FDA has concluded that “the use of aspartame as a general purpose sweetener… is safe”.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated, “Studies do not suggest an increased risk associated with aspartame consumption for leukaemia, brain tumours or a variety of cancers, including lymphatic and haematopoietic (blood) cancers.”

Also Read: Who doesn’t love a good barbecue? Well, your kidneys!

What an oncologist has to say

Clinical Director of Surgical Oncology, Senior Consultant — Surgical Oncology and Robotic Surgical Oncology at Yashoda Hospital in Hyderabad, Dr Chinnababu Sunkavalli says that there is research that obesity, diabetes, and excessive refined sugars can predispose one to cancer. This is due to strong immune and pro-inflammatory mechanisms seen in such individuals.

“People who want to avoid excess calories and refined sugars, or those who are health conscious, have a tendency to substitute sugar with artificial sweeteners. The most commonly sweetener is aspartame. This is used in carbonated drinks, gums, and ice creams. There has been numerous studies in the last four decades about the safety profile of this artificial sweetener and this controversy is never ending,” he tells South First.

It is already known that people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria should not consume aspartame due to enzymatic deficiencies which can be fatal in such people.

“The latest research has possibly linked this agent to cancer pathways. There is a need for strong data regarding the quantity at which aspartame can be carcinogenic, the type of cancers it can cause, and the category of cancer-causing agent it may be classified into,” he says.

Dr Sunkavalli adds that this can only be made possible by further research. He says that it would be a wise decision to avoid anything in excess and to limit consumption of sugar and such artificial sweeteners.

Also Read: Can sambar actually save you from colon cancer?