WHO says aspartame at very high doses ‘possible carcinogen’

In a move which will be closely followed by the life sciences sector and those in the wider liability market, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the sweetener aspartame is a “possible carcinogen”.

However, the WHO also stressed that aspartame remains safe to consume at already-agreed levels.

Aspartame is one of the world’s most popular sweeteners, used in a wide variety of commercial products.

In a somewhat perverse statement, the WHO’s head of nutrition, Francesco Branca, suggested consumers weighing beverage choices consider neither aspartame nor sweetener: “If consumers are faced with the decision of whether to take cola with sweeteners or one with sugar, I think there should be a third option considered – which is to drink water instead.”

In its first declaration on the additive, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based in Lyon, France, and which is part of the WHO, said aspartame was a “possible carcinogen”.

That classification means there is limited evidence a substance can cause cancer.

It does not take into account how much a person would need to consume to be at risk, which is considered by a separate panel, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), based in Geneva.

At this early stage opinion remains divided as to the whether there really is any link between aspartame and cancer, however, with food and beverage industry associations saying that the decisions showed aspartame is safe and a good option for people wanting to reduce sugar in their diets.

The WHO said the existing consumption levels meant, for example, that a person weighing 60-70kg would have to drink more than 9-14 cans of soda daily to breach the limit, based on the average aspartame content in the beverages – around 10 times what most people consume.

“Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption could pose a risk to most consumers,” said Branca.