LONDON – Aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener found in numerous food and beverage products, is expected to be declared a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) next month, according to sources familiar with the matter.
This classification would mark the first time that aspartame is listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The IARC ruling, finalized after a recent meeting of external experts, aims to determine the potential hazards of a substance based on existing published evidence.
It does not consider the safe consumption limits of a product.
Guidelines for individual consumption are provided by a separate WHO expert committee called JECFA (Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives) and national regulators.
Past IARC rulings on various substances have raised concerns among consumers, leading to legal action and prompting manufacturers to reformulate their products and explore alternative options.
Critics argue that the IARC’s assessments can be perplexing to the general public.
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JECFA, the WHO committee responsible for reviewing additives, is also evaluating the use of aspartame this year.
Its findings are scheduled to be released on the same day as the IARC’s decision, July 14.
Since 1981, JECFA has maintained that aspartame is safe for consumption within acceptable daily limits.
For instance, an adult weighing 60 kg (132 pounds) would need to drink between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda daily, depending on the aspartame content, to be at risk.
This view has been endorsed by national regulators, including those in the United States and Europe.
Both the IARC and JECFA committees have classified their findings as confidential until July.
However, an IARC spokesperson emphasized that the two assessments are complementary, with the IARC’s conclusion serving as an initial step in understanding carcinogenicity.
The additives committee focuses on risk assessment, evaluating the likelihood of specific harms, such as cancer, under certain conditions and exposure levels.
Concerns have been raised by industry and regulators over the simultaneous timing of both assessments, as it could cause confusion.
Letters from U.S. and Japanese regulators, seen by Reuters, have urged coordination between the two bodies to avoid misunderstandings among the public.
The regulators also called for the release of both sets of conclusions on the same day, which is now scheduled to occur.
The Japanese mission in Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, did not provide comment on the matter.