Health Sector – UHC, National Health Policy, Family Planning, Health Insurance, etc.

Aspartame: the Carcinogenic additive in Diet Cola


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Aspartame

Mains level: Not Much


Central Idea

  • The cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) is reportedly considering listing aspartame, a popular sugar substitute ‘Aspartame’ as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
  • This potential listing by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has generated controversy as it contradicts previous studies that found no evidence linking aspartame to cancer.

What is Aspartame?

  • Aspartame is widely used as an artificial sweetener in various food and beverage products.
  • It is made from the dipeptide of two amino acids, L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine.
  • It is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is commonly used in diet soft drinks, sugar-free gum, and other sugar-free products.
  • It is favored by those seeking to reduce calorie intake or manage diabetes.

Safety Record and Regulatory Approvals

  • Aspartame has undergone extensive studies over 40 years, with over 100 studies finding no evidence of harm caused by its consumption.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has permitted its use in food since 1981, and it has been reviewed multiple times for safety.
  • The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as national regulators in various countries, also deem aspartame safe for consumption.
  • However, individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder, should avoid aspartame due to the presence of phenylalanine.

Controversies and Impact of WHOs Listings

  • Past IARC rulings have raised concerns, led to lawsuits, and influenced manufacturers to seek alternatives due to public confusion.
  • The potential listing of aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic” by the IARC contradicts previous scientific consensus on its safety.
  • Critics argue that IARC assessments can be confusing to the public and may create unnecessary fear and misinformation.

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