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World Health Organization Set to Label Aspartame, the Sweetener in Diet Coke, as a Possible Carcinogen


Coca-Cola and the artificial sweetener industry brace for significant repercussions as aspartame, one of the most extensively utilized sweeteners, is on the verge of being labeled a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO).

This impending classification spells trouble for the food and beverage giant, as it holds the potential to create far-reaching tremors throughout the industry.

The WHO recently stated to Fortune that the IARC has evaluated the potential carcinogenic effects of aspartame, leading to an upcoming update in the risk assessment exercise conducted by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

The JECFA will review the acceptable daily intake of aspartame and assess its dietary exposure. Both evaluations are scheduled to be released simultaneously on July 14, providing further insights into the potential risks associated with aspartame consumption.

Aspartame is a common ingredient found in various beverages and foods, including Diet Coke, sugarless chewing gum, Dannon Activia yogurt, cough drops, and some toothpaste brands.

The current WHO label for aspartame indicates limited evidence linking it to cancer, placing it in the lowest category among the three classifications. The next potential steps are “probable carcinogen” (examples include the herbicide glyphosate) and “carcinogenic to humans” (such as tobacco smoking and asbestos).

While the forthcoming ruling by the IARC will not address the safe levels of aspartame consumption. Determining the acceptable daily intake will be the responsibility of the JECFA, which will provide guidelines based on their assessment of the available data.

The last comprehensive study on aspartame by the WHO dates back to 1981, when an acceptable daily intake of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight was established. Given the availability of new research results, the new study was initiated to reevaluate the safety of aspartame.

News of the pending declaration has put the food industry on the defensive. While Coca-Cola did not provide an immediate response to Fortune’s request for comment, the International Sweeteners Association, which includes major companies like PepsiCo and Mars Wrigley, expressed serious concerns about the preliminary speculation surrounding the IARC’s opinion.

Frances Hunt-Wood, the secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association, emphasized that IARC is not a food safety body and urged caution until both reports are published. Hunt-Wood further highlighted that aspartame is one of the most extensively researched ingredients in history, with over 90 food safety agencies worldwide declaring its safety.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, a trade organization representing the nonalcoholic beverage industry, also criticized the premature disclosure of the report, suggesting that it could needlessly mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than opting for safe no- and low-sugar alternatives.

This classification by the IARC represents the latest blow to sugar substitutes as advised by the WHO. Just last month, the WHO advised consumers to refrain from using non-sugar sweeteners for weight control, stating that they do not aid in weight loss. However, this guidance did not point to any potential health risks associated with these sweeteners.

Past rulings by the IARC have had significant impacts on businesses utilizing the implicated ingredients. In 2015, the IARC committee conducted a review that concluded glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide, is “probably carcinogenic.”

As a result, the German drug and pesticide company Bayer faced substantial legal challenges and lost its third appeal against U.S. court verdicts that awarded damages of $86 million to customers who attributed their cancer to the use of Bayer’s glyphosate-based weed killers.

Bayer maintains that these verdicts are inconsistent with sound science and the clearance of their products by federal environmental regulators.

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