As more Americans shy away from sugar, artificial sweeteners have stepped in to fill the gap in people’s favorite recipes, with more than 6,000 products manufactured with aspartame.
But questions are being raised about aspartame’s safety after Reuters reported that the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization is set to declare that the artificial sweetener is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has “assessed the potential carcinogenic effect of aspartame” and will release its findings on July 14, a representative at the organization told CBS MoneyWatch. They did not confirm the Reuters report about the IARC’s conclusion on aspartame’s safety.
The IARC examines the cancer-causing potential of substances, while another WHO group oversees recommendations about how much of a product is safe for humans to consume.
Aspartame has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food products, with the agency concluding the additive is “safe for the general population.” But questions have lingered about aspartame’s safety, with one 2021 research paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients, noting that “the results of its long-term use remain difficult to predict.”
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is a compound called methyl ester. The artificial sweetener, which is 200 times as potent as regular granulated sugar, entered the market as a low-calorie sweetener in 1981. Brand names include Nutrasweet, Equal and Sugar Twin. Since then, it has become a key ingredient in foods and beverages across North America, Asia and Europe, data from the National Library of Medicine shows.
According to several studies, aspartame does not impact blood sugar or insulin levels, making it a popular sugar substitute in foods for diabetics. Manufacturers have also used aspartame in reduced-sugar and sugar-free snacks, condiments and beverages amid research that has linked excess sugar consumption to various cancers.
Foods that contain aspartame
Here are some common foods and beverages that contain aspartame:
- Zero-sugar or diet sodas, including Diet Coke
- Sugar-free gums, such as Trident gum
- Diet drink mixes, including Crystal Light
- Reduced-sugar condiments, such as Log Cabin Sugar Free Syrup
- Sugar-free gelatin like Sugar-free Jell-O
- Tabletop sweeteners sold under brand names including Equal and Nutrasweet
Neither Coca-Cola, maker of Diet Coke, nor other manufacturers of foods containing aspartame immediately returned requests for comment.
To be sure, specific sweeteners used in low-sugar products vary, and companies sometimes change ingredients. To get the most accurate information, consumers should check the ingredient lists on individual products to confirm whether or not it contains aspartame.
Is aspartame dangerous?
While several studies have determined aspartame to be safe in moderation, some research has linked aspartame consumption to cancer. One observational study of more than 100,000 adults in France concluded that individuals who consumed larger amounts of artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, had a slightly elevated risk of cancer.
Aspartame may also cause headaches, seizures and depression, some studies have shown.
The FDA and American Cancer Society, however, both still deem aspartame safe for human consumption.
Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, an international association representing the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage, said there was context missing from the “misleading claims” from the IARC.
“Consumers deserve facts, and the fact is aspartame is safe and one of the most widely studied food ingredients, which is why the Calorie Control Council is gravely concerned about any unsubstantiated and misleading assertions that contradict decades of science and global regulatory approvals,” he said in a statement to CBS News.
According to the FDA’s acceptable daily limit for artificial sweeteners, an adult weighing 150 pounds would have to ingest more than 18 cans of zero-sugar soda a day to experience severe negative health consequences from aspartame.
This story has been updated to correct the previous inclusion of Smucker’s on the list. Smucker’s said it does not use aspartame in its low-sugar jams.