WHO says aspartame safe to consume despite weak cancer link

20 July 2023

According to two separate reports published on Friday by researchers affiliated to the World Health Organisation (WHO), aspartame is safe to consume even though there is weak evidence linking it to a common type of liver cancer.

Aspartame is a common non-nutritive sweetener used by many industries, including food and beverages such as diet sodas and chewing gums. Being about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, the additive helps popular products reduce their sugar content.

While the WHO reaffirmed that the sweetener was safe, the head of the organisation’s food safety department said that quantity was key.

“We’re not advising companies to withdraw products nor we are advising consumers to stop consuming altogether. We’re just advising for a bit of moderation,” said Francesco Branca, the director of the WHO’s food safety department.

The first report based on consumption was issued by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) who confirmed its previous safe acceptable daily intake of aspartame of up to 40 milligrams per kilo or around 15 cans of diet soda for an adult man.

The second aspartame report — looking at whether the sweetener could cause cancer — was conducted by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A possible risk was found based on three studies that observed increased rates of hepatocellular carcinoma — a type of liver cancer — in drinkers of artificially sweetened beverages. The IARC gave the sweetener a classification of Group 2B, the second lowest risk level, meaning it is means it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on inconclusive evidence.

The WHO has only presented summaries of the reports, with the full assessments due to be published within six months, the health authority said.

Some scientists have linked artificial sweeteners to other health risks, most notably diabetes. A recently published evidence review from the WHO recommends against the use of artificial sweeteners to lose weight, noting there is not any evidence for this effect.