Business Standard

Aspartame: What is this sweetener that may be 'possibly carcinogenic'

The WHO is reportedly going to make a decision on the artificial sweetener, that is used in more than 6,000 food and drinks including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, in July

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

BS Web Team New Delhi

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Aspartame, one of the world's most common artificial sweeteners used in popular diet food & beverages, may be labeled as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation's (WHO) cancer research arm.

The final decision will be taken by WHO in July, as earlier reported by Business Standard. Here is everything you need to know about the artificial sweetener.

What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that provide sweetness to food and beverages without adding any significant calories. They are commonly used as a sugar alternative for people who want to reduce their sugar intake, manage weight, or control blood sugar levels. Artificial sweeteners are intensely sweet, often hundreds or thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so only small amounts are needed to achieve the desired sweetness. They are popular in "diet" food & beverages and products aimed at people with diabetes.

What is aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is commonly used as a sugar substitute in various food and beverage products. It is composed of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are naturally occurring compounds found in many protein-containing foods.
Aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener because it provides sweetness without adding a significant amount of calories. Compared to sugar, which contains about four calories per gram, aspartame is virtually calorie-free.
It is also approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar according to the United States National Library of Medicine. Due to its intense sweetness, only small amounts are needed to achieve the desired level of sweetness in food and beverages. However, it is not suitable for baking or cooking at high temperatures as the sweetness may diminish when exposed to high temperatures. However, it is a commonly used substance in products including diet sodas, sugar-free or low-sugar beverages, chewing gum, tabletop sweeteners, yogurt, desserts, and various processed foods labeled as "diet" or "sugar-free."

Popularity of Aspartame
According to an article by the Guardian in December 2022, aspartame was the "first sweetner that could be used to create diet drinks with no bitter aftertaste and no calories." The article also added that by 2005, it was used in more than 6,000 food and drinks including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.
However, the report noted that in the last 20 years or so, doubts regarding the product have been raised, especially with several studies between 2006-10 from the Ramazzini Institute in Italy showing the sweetener causes "malignant tumours in rats and mice."

Concern for those with Phenylketonuria (PKU)
Phenylalanine, one of the components of aspartame, is a concern for individuals with the rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU have difficulty metabolising phenylalanine, and therefore, they need to monitor their intake of aspartame and other sources of phenylalanine.

Overall safety
Aspartame has been extensively studied and approved for use by numerous regulatory agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and other authorities around the world.
Some studies have shown the substance to cause tumours when tested on rats and mice.
Now the WHO will be taking a look at all studies published on the substance to decide whether or not it will be labeled as "possibly carcinogenic" to humans.

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First Published: Jun 29 2023 | 6:57 PM IST

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