Experts slam WHO for causing unnecessary panic over aspartame with cancer fears
Keep calm and keep drinking Diet Coke experts have urged Brits in the wake of a bombshell leak linking a commonly used sweetener to cancer.
Aspartame, a sugar alternative using in diet drinks, juices and lighter versions of chewing gum, yogurt and jellies, is set to be listed as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to insiders.
The news prompted some people on social media to swear to ‘never’ touch Diet Coke, or other products containing aspartame, ever again.
But experts today told MailOnline that the WHO leak was causing unnecessary panic and urged people not to overreact.
And official dietary advice shows the average adult Brit would need to drink a whopping 15 cans of Diet Coke a day to breach the recommended aspartame intake.
Particular products containing aspartame — which entered the market in the 1980s — include Diet Coke, Dr Pepper as well as Extra chewing gum and Muller Light yoghurts. Some toothpastes, dessert mixes, and sugar-free cough drops also contain it
Aspartame has become a mainstay of many people’s diets, as a huge push to crackdown on sugar over the past few decades has led to the mass usage of artificial alternatives.
The leaked ruling from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) was harshly criticized by some experts yesterday, with some even going as far to calling it ‘dumb’.
And today, Professor Gunter Kuhnle, an expert in nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, slammed the WHO leak as causing unnecessary panic.
‘So far, we have a leak but neither the actual opinion nor the data supporting that opinion,’ he said.
‘In my opinion, it is worrying that claims without supporting data are published, as this makes it impossible to assess and interpret them properly.
‘Creating health-related panic is – in my opinion – always a very bad idea.’
He added that he himself would continue to consume products containing aspartame.
‘I won’t change my behaviour and I don’t think there is a reason to do so based on this report,’ he said.
‘Aspartame has been investigated for many years, and so far there has been no reason to change the recommendation.’
However, he added that this didn’t make the IARC report useless, and it would be critical to assess its data in the context of how much aspartame is regularly consumed by the general public.
Professor Kuhnle also highlighted a commonly misunderstood aspect of the IARC, in that it classifies substances based on the evidence base that they can cause cancer, not on the cancer risk itself.
This means aspartame’s rating of ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ is about the strength of evidence linking it to the disease, not how carcinogenic, as in likely to cause cancer, it is.
For comparison, IARC gives a similar ‘possibly carcinogenic’ ranking to aloe vera extract and using talcum powder on your perineum, and a harsher ‘probably carcinogenic’ to eating red meat or being a hairdresser.
‘We will need to find out what amounts of aspartame have caused cancer in the studies IARC relies on and how relevant this is, Professor Kuhnle.
The Reading academic wasn’t the only expert to ask Brits to keep calm over the WHO leak.
Television medic and GP Dr Amir Kahn told ITV’s Good Morning Britain there wasn’t any need for Brits to suddenly change their eating and drinking habits.
‘The key here is not to panic, we’re still waiting for more data on this,’ he said.
‘It’s important to say that aspartame is one of the most researched substances in the world and its never been conclusively linked to cancer but researchers have been asking for more long term data on its side effects.
‘Don’t panic, continue what you’re doing and let’s wait for the information.’
Diet Coke was launched in 1982 as a healthier alternative to its original recipe and has been the subject of numerous marketing campaigns such as this example with model Kate Moss
Aspartame is used to sweeten a variety of food and drinks, including sodas, both diet, and regular, as well as chewing gums and some desserts (stock image)
Once the IARC report on aspartame is officially published, safe consumption levels for people would be determined by a separate body, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
JECFA is also reviewing aspartame use and will announce its findings on the same day that the IARC makes public its decision — on July 14.
These could then be adapted by national health bodies.
Current recommendations for safe daily aspartame consumption are 50mg per kg of body weight in the US and 40mg per kg of body weight in the UK.
This puts the British recommendation at about 2800mg for a 70kg adult.
Considering the average can of Diet Coke contains 180mg of real aspartame the British Dietetic Association outlines how an adult would need to consume 15 cans a day before being at risk of any health consequences from the sweetener.
Cancer Research UK explicitly states that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame don’t cause cancer and health and food regulators have repeatedly declared them safe following ‘rigorous’ assessments.
Industry bodies have also claimed the IARC review consisted of ‘widely discredited research’ which ‘contradicts decades of high-quality evidence’.
UK food safety regulators have said they will examine the JEFCA report before deciding ‘whether any further actions are needed.’
Currently food containing aspartame must include this information on the label due to the danger the substance poses to people with phenylketonuria, a rare inherited blood condition.
Phenylketonuria sufferers cannot process phenylalanine — one of the chemical building blocks of aspartame.
If people with phenylketonuria consume phenylalanine it can build up in their blood, eventually damaging their vital organs.
Only about one in 10,000 people have phenylketonuria.
Similar WHO-backed cancer warnings slapped on red meat, working overnight and using mobile phones have faced criticism for sparking needless alarm over hard to avoid substances or situations.
The IARC said it had assessed 1,300 studies in its upcoming aspartame review.
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