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What is aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has been used in the United States since the early 1980s. It is used in many foods and drinks because it is much sweeter than sugar, so less sugar can be used to achieve the same level of sweetness.

Aspartame is commonly used as a tabletop sweetener, in prepared foods and beverages, and in recipes that don't require much heating (because heat breaks down aspartame). It is also used as a flavoring in some medications, chewing gum, and toothpaste.

Does aspartame cause cancer?

For years, there have been concerns that aspartame causes many health problems, including cancer.

Some of the cancer concerns stem from laboratory mouse studies published in the late 2000s by a team of Italian researchers, which suggested that aspartame may increase the risk of certain blood-related cancers (leukemias and lymphomas) and other types of cancer. risk. However, these studies have several limitations that make their results difficult to interpret.

Results from epidemiological studies (studies of people) regarding possible links between aspartame and cancer, including blood-related cancers, are inconsistent for most cancers. Some studies suggest there may be a link, but others do not.

World Health Organization (WHO)

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

IARC is the cancer research agency of the World Health Organization. One of its main roles is to determine the cause of cancer.

IARC classifies aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" (Group 2B), based on limited evidence that it may cause cancer (especially liver cancer) in people. IARC also noted that there is limited evidence of cancer in laboratory animals and limited evidence related to the possible mechanisms by which it causes cancer.

It is important to know that IARC classifications are based on the strength of the evidence whether something causes cancer in humans and how likely it is that it causes cancer. Group 2B classification is the third highest of the 4 levels and is typically used when there is limited but unconvincing evidence of cancer in humans, or when there is convincing evidence of cancer in laboratory animals, but not both at the same time. situation.

Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)

JECFA is an international expert committee jointly operated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization. One of its main roles is to assess the safety of food additives. It takes into account all possible health effects, including cancer.

JECFA assesses the risk of specific types of harm (e.g. cancer) occurring in certain situations, taking into account how, how often and to what extent people are exposed to food additives.

After completing its dietary exposure assessment, JECFA concluded: "The evidence for an association between aspartame intake and cancer in humans is not convincing."

Based on current dietary exposure estimates, JECFA concludes that dietary intake of aspartame does not cause health problems.

overall conclusion

Commenting on the assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Joint Expert Committee on Food, the Director of WHO's Department of Nutrition and Food Safety concluded: "The assessment of aspartame shows that, although for commonly used doses, safety is not a major issue, Potential impacts have been described and need to be investigated through more and better studies."

While the science is still evolving, the American Cancer Society supports calls from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and other organizations for more research on aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. We also continue to conduct our own research to better understand their possible links to cancer and to help reduce cancer risk and improve prevention efforts and care in other areas.

food regulatory authorities

While food regulators are not primarily responsible for determining whether certain substances cause cancer, they do consider evidence when determining whether food (and food additives) are safe to eat.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the safety of added ingredients in U.S. foods, including artificial sweeteners like aspartame (see "Is Aspartame Regulated?" below).

"The scientific evidence continues to support the FDA's conclusion that aspartame is safe for the general population when manufactured under good manufacturing practices and used under approved conditions of use," the FDA said.

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regulates food additives in the EU. After completing a risk assessment of aspartame in 2013, the European Food Safety Authority stated: "At current exposure levels, aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption."

Is aspartame regulated?

In the United States, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are regulated by the FDA. These products must be tested for safety and approved by the FDA before they can be used. The FDA also sets an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for each sweetener, which is the maximum amount a person is considered safe to consume each day during use. life cycle.

The FDA has set the ADI for aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day (50 mg/kg/day).

Both JECFA and EFSA recommend a slightly lower ADI of 40 mg/kg/day for aspartame.

To help put these levels into perspective, the FDA estimates that a person weighing 60 kilograms (132 pounds) would have to consume approximately 75 packets of aspartame per day to reach the ADI limit of 50 mg/kg per day.

Likewise, a person weighing 70 kg (154 lb) would have to consume at least 9-14 cans of diet soda per day (depending on the amount of aspartame in each can) to exceed the ADI of 40 mg/kg/day. Joint Expert Committee/European Food Safety Authority.

Can aspartame be avoided?

Aspartame has not been linked to any specific health problems other than in people with phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a rare genetic disorder (present at birth) in which the body is unable to break down phenylalanine, an amino acid found in many foods (as well as aspartame). This is why any product containing aspartame, including pharmaceuticals, must carry the warning "Phenylketonuria: Contains Phenylalanine."

For others who want to avoid aspartame, the easiest way is to look for the same warnings or check ingredient labels before buying or consuming food or drinks. If the product contains aspartame, it will be listed.

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