The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that aspartame, a common artificial sweetener used instead of sugar, will likely be declared a “possible carcinogen to humans.”
The WHO indicated that aspartame might be related to cancer-causing factors based on findings from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC is an arm of the WHO that specializes in research on cancer.
According to the study, after aspartame gets inside the body, it is hydrolyzed and absorbed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This process leads to the release of methanol, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine.
The breakdown of methanol starts in the liver, where it is first oxidized to formaldehyde and then again to formic acid. In addition to the direct damage methanol causes to the liver, formaldehyde is also outrightly toxic to liver cells and associated with cancer-causing properties.
Another study in rats amongst others discovered that early exposure to aspartame in life increases the risk of rat pups subsequently developing cancer.
Many in vivo and in vitro studies indicating the high-risk factor of aspartame in the development of cancer have led many regulatory agencies, like IARC, to reconsider the safety of aspartame for human consumption.
Research on the correlation of aspartame consumption and increased risk of getting cancer was also conducted in humans.
In a study of 100,000 adults in France, it was found that people who took aspartame had a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and obesity-related cancers including colorectal, stomach, liver, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophageal, ovarian, endometrial, and prostate cancers.
However, though aspartame does not appear to increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, men who consume aspartame appear to be at a greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
Hence, it was concluded that consumption of the artificial sweetener highly increases the risk of specific cancers of the body.
Asides from the risk of cancer, aspartame consumption in foods, women who consume aspartame during pregnancy may increase their chances of preterm delivery and allergic diseases in their baby.
Aspartame may also cause headaches, seizures, and depression, according to a case study.
Other health risks of aspartame consumption during pregnancy include the possibility of developing adverse glucose and insulin tolerance, altered intestinal microbiota composition, greater weight gain, as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and hormone-related cancers in the infant.
Aspartame has also been linked to certain neurological and behavioral disorders, as well as certain neuropsychiatric reactions including headache, convulsions, and depression. This is mainly a result of the production of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol, all of which can cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and directly interact with neurotransmitters.
The FDA and American Cancer Society, however, both still hold that aspartame is safe for human consumption.
Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, an international association representing low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage, said there was context missing from the “misleading claims” from the IARC.
In a statement, he said; “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”.
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