A leading global health body has declared that the artificial sweetener aspartame, commonly used as an ingredient in diet soda, chewing gum and vitamins, may cause cancer.
But the World Health Organization’s report late Thursday also noted that people would have to be exposed to extreme amounts of aspartame — whether through diet, occupational exposure or other means — to be at risk.
So how much aspartame is too much?
It’s safe to consume up to 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of body weight per day, a WHO and Food and Agriculture Organizations joint committee of experts on food additives said. So, a person who weighs 154 pounds would need to drink nine to 14 cans of, say, Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke per day to exceed that level, assuming there are 200 to 300 milligrams of aspartame in each can.
“We’re not advising consumers to stop consuming [aspartame] altogether,” said WHO’s nutrition director, Dr. Francesco Branca. “We’re just advising a bit of moderation.”
The Food and Drug Administration has an even higher daily aspartame-exposure limit: 50 milligrams per kilo of body weight.
Even heavy aspartame users — Donald Trump, the former U.S. president, for example, drank a reported 12 cans of Diet Coke a day in his White House years — would struggle to consume that much of the sweetener in an average day.
But consumers should also note that a food being labeled “safe” is not equivalent to its being healthy. There has been plenty of research to suggest that sipping too many sweetened beverages, including diet drinks with artificial sweeteners, may be linked to health problems and elevated risk of death.
Aspartame is used in products that millions of people use every day, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Pepsi Zero Sugar and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, the Mars Wrigley chewing gum Extra and some Snapple drinks, as well as some protein drinks, among thousands of others, by the Calorie Control Council’s count.
Aspartame was developed beginning in the mid-1960s by Skokie, Ill.–based G.D. Searle & Co., now a Pfizer
subsidiary, which branded the sweetener NutraSweet. It secured ultimate FDA approval, after initial hiccups, for use in dry goods and then in carbonated soft drinks in 1981 and 1983, according to the Calorie Control Council.
The organization that this week labeled aspartame possibly carcinogenic was the World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The IARC said its aspartame declaration is based on “limited evidence” of cancer in humans, specifically a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma.
What should consumers do with this aspartame news? “At least when it comes to beverages, our message is your best choice is to drink water or an unsweetened beverage,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which previously nominated aspartame for IARC review.
More aspartame news on MarketWatch:
What is aspartame, and is it bad for you? Here’s what health experts say
Aspartame is possibly carcinogenic, according to WHO’s cancer-research agency