Is Aspartame Safe to Consume?

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Aspartame has received much media attention in recent weeks.  On July 14, 2023, a report was released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) assessing the health impacts of the artificial sweetener.

In this report, IARC, a WHO affiliated agency that assesses whether an ingredient is potentially hazardous, classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, citing “limited evidence” for carcinogenicity in humans. 

IARC has four classification levels that rank carcinogenic hazards to humans: 

  1. carcinogenic to humans
  2. probably carcinogenic to humans
  3. possibly carcinogenic to humans
  4. not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans

The report explained the strength-of-evidence classification is the third highest level and it is generally used either when there is limited, but not convincing, evidence for cancer in humans or convincing evidence for cancer in experimental animals, but not both.

In the same report, JECFA, also a WHO affiliated agency that recommends how much a person can safely consume, did not change their previous recommendation for acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg body weight, therefore reaffirming it’s safe for a person to consume aspartame within this limit.  To put this recommendation into perspective, JECFA went on to explain a can of diet soft drink contains 200 or 300 mg of aspartame, so an adult weighing 70kg would need to consume more than 9–14 cans per day to exceed the acceptable daily intake of aspartame.

The report explained that both IARC and JECFA conducted independent evaluations that were based on scientific data from a range of sources and included available studies in both humans and animals.  Moving forward, new evidence will continue to be monitored and high quality research studies on the potential association between aspartame exposure and consumer health effects from independent research groups is being encouraged.

Following the WHO’s IARC and JECFA report released on July 14, 2023, the Canadian Cancer Society is recommending that people stay within existing daily limits for aspartame consumption and is also encouraging more research on the artificial sweetener. 

What does Health Canada say about aspartame?

In response to the WHO’s IARC and JECFA report, Health Canada has posted a statement on their website.  This statement begins by explaining, “Aspartame, a low-calorie artificial sweetener, has been permitted for use as a food additive in Canada since 1981 in a number of foods including soft drinks, desserts, breakfast cereals and chewing gum and is also available as a table-top sweetener.” 

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The statement further reads, “In Canada, food additives such as aspartame are subjected to rigorous controls under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations.”  The statement goes on to explain, “Before consideration was given to permitting aspartame for use in foods in Canada, officials of Health Canada evaluated an extensive array of toxicological tests in laboratory animals and, since its listing for use, they have examined the results of a number of clinical studies in humans. There is no evidence to suggest that the consumption of foods containing this sweetener, according to the provisions of the Food and Drug Regulations and as part of a well-balanced diet, would pose a health risk to consumers.”

The website notes, “More than ninety countries world-wide have also reviewed aspartame and found it to be safe for human consumption and allow its use in various foods.”

Health Canada explains they also use the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg of body weight/day, which is the same as that established and recently re-affirmed by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) in the report released July 14, 2023.

Health Canada further explains on its website that it is reviewing the summary assessments by the WHO’s IARC and JECFA published on July 13, 2023, and will review the full reports for each assessment once they are released.  From there, Health Canada will determine whether action on aspartame is needed to protect Canadians, which, if necessary, could include:

  • Reducing one or more maximum levels of use for aspartame
  • Further restricting which foods it may be used in
  • No longer permitting it to be used as a food additive

Sugar substitutes and healthy eating

Canada’s Food Guide explains sugar substitutes, such as aspartame are not needed to help decrease the amount of sugars you eat or drink.  There are many ways to decrease your intake of sugars without using sugar substitutes, such as choosing water instead of sugary drinks, reducing the amount of sugars you add to your coffee and tea or sweetening foods naturally by using fruits; try this with:

  • yogurt
  • oatmeal
  • baked goods

Check Health Canada’s website for more information about sugar substitutes and healthy eating

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