Industry hits back at aspartame cancer headlines

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Aspartame is used by a number of leading soft drink brands. Credit: Getty / taka4332
Aspartame is used by a number of leading soft drink brands. Credit: Getty / taka4332

Related tags Cancer Aspartame Soft drinks WHO International Sweeteners Association Food standards agency

Leading bodies within food and drink manufacturing have cautioned against overreacting to the pending IARC aspartame cancer ruling.

Key food and drink manufacturing industry figures have warned that recent headlines about aspartame being named as “possibly carcinogenic to humans​” do not tell the whole story, and that further public pronouncements should be put on the backburner until all the findings are released.

A report at Reuters​ emerged on 29 June stating that the cancer research wing of the World Health Organisation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), is set to classify aspartame as a potential carcinogen following a meeting of the group's external experts.

The IARC’s decision will be made public on 14 July, the same day as the findings of research into aspartame by the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) are announced. A spokesperson for the IARC told Reuters that findings of the two investigations were “complementary​”.

Calls for patience

However, bodies including the International Sweeteners Association (ISA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have urged that speculation on the IARC’s decision should be tabled until all the findings are released.

“IARC is not a food safety body,”​ said ISA secretary general Frances Hunt-Wood. “JECFA is currently conducting a comprehensive food safety review of aspartame and no conclusions can be drawn until both reports are published.

“Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in history, with over 90 food safety agencies across the globe declaring it is safe, including the European Food Safety Authority, which conducted the most comprehensive safety evaluation of aspartame to date.”

FSA deputy chief scientific Adviser Rick Mumford added that based on the numerous previous assessments of aspartame by science committees in the past, it is “considered safe at current permitted use levels”.

Mumford concluded: “The IARC report has not yet been published and, when it is, it will be examined by JECFA, who will put together a risk assessment by the end of July. We will closely study JECFA’s report and decide whether any further actions are needed.”

Assessing risk

The IARC is responsible for assessing hazard, rather than risk, meaning that its analysis does not consider whether the current levels of aspartame used in soft drinks and confectionery increase the risk of cancer or not.

“IARC recommendations indicate that a compound has the potential to cause cancer, but they do not tell us whether they are likely to cause cancer when consumed in a realistic quantity​,” explained Amy Berrington, professor of clinical cancer epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Meanwhile, concerns over allergens triggered a series of product recalls throughout June​.

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