There is a new sweetener in the crosshairs of scientists for its harmful potential against health: aspartame. This substance, present in low-calorie drinks, chewing gum, jellies, breakfast cereals or ice cream, is under scrutiny by cancer experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the researchers’ conclusions point to being unfavorable. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a body of the WHO that is in charge of evaluating the carcinogenic potential of substances, is studying whether this sweetener can increase the risk of cancer in the population and According to the Reuters agency, in the coming days they will declare this substance as a “possible carcinogen.” To questions from this newspaper, the IARC has limited itself to corroborating that it has evaluated “the potential carcinogenic effect of aspartame” and, after this, a spokesperson has asserted, “the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA ) will update its risk assessment on aspartame, including the review of the acceptable daily intake and dietary exposure assessment” for this product. The IARC has not confirmed the information advanced by Reuters nor has it specified any of the specific results of its evaluation.
Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener, which has been used since the 1980s as a tabletop sweetener, in food items such as diet sodas or sugar-free soft drinks, or in other products such as toothpaste. According to the IARC, the safety of this substance was evaluated in 1981 by JECFA and established an acceptable daily intake of 40 milligrams per kilo of weight per day. However, “given the availability of new research results,” justifies the IARC, the advisory group recommending the priorities of the IARC monographs suggested that reassessment of the cancer risk of aspartame was a “high priority” during the period from 2020-2024. The results of the IARC, as well as those of JECFA, which will specifically analyze the acceptable intake and the specific evaluation of dietary exposure, will be announced on July 14.
The Reuters agency has advanced that the IARC will include aspartame in July as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This means, according to the scale of the WHO cancer expert agency, that the expert group has only made one of the following evaluations: either there is limited evidence of its carcinogenic capacity in humans, or that sufficient evidence is either found in experimental animals or there is “strong mechanistic evidence, showing that the agent exhibits key characteristics of carcinogens in humans.” The IARC, however, does not take into account the amount that a person can ingest, since that assessment and that context correspond to JECFA to analyze it.
Miguel A. Luruena, PhD in Food Science and Technology, contextualizes that around aspartame “there has always been a lot of controversy, but it is also one of the most evaluated sweeteners.” In fact, he shows his “surprise” at the IARC’s foreseeable decision, although he calls for “prudence until we see what the report says and what it means.” This scientific popularizer recalls the controversy that the IARC raised in 2015 when it also cataloged red meat as possible carcinogenic and clarifies the implications of the IARC’s conclusions: “It is not a list that classifies by its danger, but by the level of scientific evidence what’s up. In group 1 of the IARC there is tobacco and bacon, and obviously, the danger of one agent and the other is not the same, ”he exemplifies.
Luruena also adds that in nutrition and food safety, many studies are reviewed and there is not always a direct causality. “Many are correlation studies [confirman una asociacion, no causalidad] and drawing conclusions is sometimes risky because there can be many confounding factors. It’s not easy.” In addition, he warns, the circumstance may arise that the results of the IARC report and that of JECFA are contradictory, which would further complicate understanding in the face of public opinion. The scientific popularizer fears two consequences on the street of the IARC’s conclusions: “On the one hand, it will create rejection and fear, we’ll see if it’s justified or not, but nuances will be lost. In addition, the focus can be diverted from what is important, which are the lifestyles we lead: you do not have to pay so much attention to whether the cola contains aspartame, but how many of these you drink”
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also conducted a review in 2013 on the risk of this sweetener, which is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. The European body then concluded that it was “safe” for the population at the recommended exposure levels: 40 milligrams per kilo of weight per day. “After a comprehensive review of the evidence provided by animal and human studies, experts have ruled out a potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer,” he said at the time. The EFSA qualified, however, that for a specific group of people, patients suffering from the medical condition phenylketonuria (a rare hereditary disorder that causes a specific amino acid to accumulate in the body), this acceptable daily intake was not “applicable , since they require strict compliance with a diet low in phenylalanine”, he justified.
The debate about the health effects of aspartame has long been raging within the scientific community. The Ramazzini Institute warned in 2006 and 2007 that this substance caused, depending on the dose, an increase in malignant tumors in some organs in mice, although another meta-analysis concluded the opposite, that it did not have a significant carcinogenic effect in these animals. Controversy has never left the study of this sweetener. And it still goes on. A large study in France published last year in the journal Plos Medicine he also pointed out that artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and acesulfame-K, were associated with increased cancer risk.
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Source: EL PAIS