Back to top

WHO declares widely used sweetener aspartame a possible cancer cause

For the first time, a semi-independent committee for the World Health Organization said Thursday that it’s determined that aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener found in thousands of products like diet sodas and sugar-free gum, should be categorized as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

But as alarming as the designation might sound, this label does not mean your diet soda causes cancer.

The designation means that some of the research reviewed by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) shows that there may be a possible link between aspartame and liver cancer, but that science is by no means conclusive like it is for a substance like asbestos or tobacco.

Aspartame is considered one of the most studied food additives in existence. Multiple regulatory bodies like the US Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly said that aspartame is safe for human consumption if used within certain guidelines. In fact, a separate WHO committee of experts also did a risk assessment on aspartame and said Thursday that WHO’s own guidelines do not need to change.

While some scientists and food and beverage manufacturers worry that WHO’s label of “possibly carcinogenic” will confuse consumers, the agency said its hope is that this designation will prompt scientists to do even more research on aspartame and a possible link, if any, to cancer.

The FDA said on its website Friday that it disagreed with IARC’s conclusion about aspartame being a possible carcinogen to humans. It took issue with the studies the committee relied on to come to its conclusion, saying in an email to CNN that the research had “significant shortcomings.”

“FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions,” the FDA said.

American Beverage, an association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry, said in a statement that “There is a broad consensus in the scientific and regulatory community that aspartame is safe. It’s a conclusion reached time and time again by food safety agencies around the world.”

The association said safety is always the highest priority of its industry.

“The fact that food safety agencies worldwide, including the FDA, continue to find aspartame safe makes us confident in the safety of our products.”