By Chukwuma Muanya
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) has linked the popular sweetener, aspartame, to cancer. And recently, a warning by health organization was amplified by medical experts, who also warned against regular consumption of “soft drinks”. On Friday, 14 July 2023 WHO’s cancer research agency classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, although another United Nations (UN) committee reaffirmed that there was a safe daily level of consumption. The joint assessment from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which is part of WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, represents the first public intervention by the UN health agency on the widely used sweetener.
A cancer expert and professor of nutrition, Ifeoma Okoye, says that aspartame’s prevalence in Nigeria is quite extensive. Okoye said aspartame is found in a wide variety of processed foods and beverages, including but not limited to diet sodas, sugar-free chewing gum, sugar-free desserts like ice cream and jelly, sugar substitute packets, yogurts, frozen food dinners, and even pharmaceutical drugs like cough syrups and vitamins.
Okoye, who is also a professor of radiology and radiation medicine at the department of medical microbiology and immunology, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Enugu state, said the implications of this discovery are potentially far-reaching for Nigerian consumers. “They include significant health risks. Frequent consumption of food items containing aspartame could now mean a higher risk of developing cancer. Alongside this, there may be an impact on consumer confidence in food regulation and safety. With aspartame widespread in our food supply, people might start questioning other ingredients and additives, leading to increased uncertainty and even fear,” she said.
The cancer expert said in terms of healthier alternatives, Stevia and Monk fruit extracts are promising because they are natural, zero-calorie sweeteners that do not raise blood sugar levels. Okoye said Siraitia grosvenorii, also known as monk fruit or luohan guo, is a herbaceous perennial vine of the gourd family, cucurbitaceae. It is native to Southern China. The plant is cultivated for its fruit extract. She said their taste profile might not be enjoyed by everyone, and cost can be higher than sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup.
In addition, Okoye said honey and dates, though containing calories, provide nutrients and antioxidants, lending to a more holistic approach to sweetness in our diet. As for a possible ban on aspartame, Okoye said while she understands the sentiment, bans are typically a last resort. She said it might be better to first focus on rigorous scientific research, clear labelling, and public education about dietary choices. “Keeping consumers informed can have a long-lasting and empowering effect,” the cancer expert said.
Okoye said, moving forward, this situation calls for a multipronged approach. She said people should be educated about the health implications linked with an over-reliance on processed foods, not just because of aspartame but also due to a plethora of other potentially harmful additives. The cancer expert said food manufacturers and the government need to work together to find viable, healthier alternatives that won’t compromise product taste or affordability.
She said rigorous checking and updating of regulations should be done to ensure consumer health is prioritized by industry and regulators alike. “In conclusion, the aspartame issue isn’t just a single problem to be solved, but rather a wake-up call, a reminder of the complex relationship we have with food in this modern age. A healthy, balanced, and natural diet remains the best way forward for human nutritional wellbeing,” Okoye said.
Another professor of microbiology and immunology at the department of medical microbiology and immunology, Nile University of Nigeria, Abuja, Boaz Adegboro, said aspartame is a dipeptide artificial sweetener, composed of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) joined together by a peptide bond. Adegboro said the artificial sweetener, which is 200 times as potent as regular granulated sugar, entered the market as a low-calorie sweetener in 1981. He said one observational study of more than 100,000 adults in France concluded that individuals who consumed larger quantities of artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, had a slightly elevated risk of cancer. Adegboro said foods in Nigeria that contain aspartame include: Pepsi Cola, Ribena, Coca cola, menthol mints, some mouthwash preparations, 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, and tabletop sweeteners sold under brand names including Equal and NutraSweet.
On the implications, he said: “We should limit our consumption of these diets, because excessive consumption could lead to cancers.” He listed healthy as: strawberry fruits, Zobo plant, sweet potatoes, desert dates, vinegar, Beniseed and Stevia leaves. The professor of immunology said he would not recommend a ban at this stage, because “we need more studies. But for now people should limit the quantity of those suspected foods.”
A professor of endocrinology and diabetes at College of Medicine University of Lagos (CMUL)/Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) Idi-Araba, Olufemi Fasanmade, said: “Aspartame is found in some soft drinks, diet drinks, menthos and some chewing gums. Sugar and sweeteners are not healthy. Some sweeteners have been linked to cancer in animal studies but the evidence in mankind is not strong.” The new assessments mark the first public evaluation of the sweetener by IARC, and scientists cite “limited evidence” that it could cause cancer.
Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, Dr Francesco Branca, said the assessments “have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.” The two bodies conducted independent but complementary reviews to assess the potential carcinogenic hazard and other health risks. JECFA concluded that it continues to be safe for a person to consume a substantial quantity of aspartame each day. An adult weighing around 70 kilogrammes (150lbs) would need to consume more than 9-14 cans of soft drinks to go beyond the recommended intake, assuming there was no intake from other sources.
“The findings of limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals, and of limited mechanistic evidence on how carcinogenicity may occur, underscore the need for more research to refine our understanding on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard,” said the IARC’s Dr. Mary Schubauer-Berigan. The IARC and JECFA evaluations were based on data collected from a range of sources, including peer-reviewed papers, governmental reports and studies conducted for regulatory purposes. The studies have been reviewed by independent experts, and both committees have taken steps to ensure the independence and reliability of their work, they said.
In a statement issued in reaction to the studies, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said it disagreed with IARC’s conclusion that the studies support classifying aspartame as possibly carcinogenic. “Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply chain. FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions”, the statement read, adding that Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority had both evaluated the sweetener and considered it safe at current permitted levels.
About eight years ago, in response to customer concerns about possible health risks associated with the artificial sweetener aspartame, PepsiCo decided to remove the ingredient from its popular diet soda. Today, the top three ingredients listed in the tiny print on the backs of cans and bottles of Diet Pepsi — and on its competitor Diet Coke — are water, caramel colour and aspartame. Coca-Cola referred questions by The New York Times to the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm for the industry. “Aspartame is safe,” Kevin Keane, the interim president of the organisation, said in a statement.
PepsiCo did not respond to questions for comment, but in an interview with Bloomberg Markets that aired one Thursday, Hugh F. Johnston, the chief financial officer of PepsiCo, said he did not expect a big consumer reaction. The assessment of the WHO agency adds to consumer confusion around aspartame, but it is also the latest in a recent spate of research focusing on the potential risks and questioning the true benefits of artificial sweeteners. Just a few weeks ago, WHO advised against using artificial sweeteners for weight control, saying a review of studies did not show long-term benefit in reducing body fat in children or adults. The review also suggested that the sweeteners were tied to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
This year, researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a study that found a chemical formed after digesting another sweetener, sucralose, breaks up Deoxy ribo-Nucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material and may contribute to health problems. For years, food and beverage companies and regulators have typically denounced research that raises questions about artificial sweeteners, broadly arguing that the studies were flawed or inconclusive or that the health risks were minuscule.
“A substantial body of scientific evidence shows that low- and no-calorie sweeteners provide effective and safe options to reduce sugar and calorie consumption,” Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, the lobbying association for manufacturers and suppliers of nearly two dozen alternative sweeteners, said in an emailed statement that Thursday. Indeed, most food and beverage companies that use aspartame are reluctant to switch, partly because aspartame is less expensive than other alternatives and is 200 times as sweet as sugar, meaning a little goes a very long way.
“One of the benefits of aspartame is that it’s been made for so long that manufacturers have really refined the costs and processing of it so well and they get a superior product,” said Glenn Roy, an adjunct organic chemistry professor at Vassar College who spent more than three decades working at food companies, including NutraSweet, General Foods and PepsiCo. Food and beverage companies are releasing new no- or low-sugar products in response to consumer demand, but many are being made with newer sweeteners or a blend of sweeteners. Each new product undergoes a litany of sensory and flavour tests before it is released. But for products that have been around for decades, like diet sodas, loyal customers are accustomed to a specific taste, and they could be turned off by changes in ingredients, scientists warn.