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Does Aspartame in Diet Coke Cause Cancer? The Answer Is Not a Yes or No

Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar. But should you worry about it causing cancer?

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Fit
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Aspartame – one of the world's most used artificial sweeteners – may be declared a 'possible carcinogen' (a cancer-causing substance) by the World Health Organisation (WHO), reported Reuters on 30 June.

According to the report, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO body, may declare aspartame a Class 2b carcinogen.

The news has panicked many. But should you really worry?

Does Aspartame in Diet Coke Cause Cancer? The Answer Is Not a Yes or No

  1. 1. What Is Aspartame?

    According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

    This makes it less sweet than other artificial sweeteners, but even one gram of aspartame has a sweetness intensity of roughly 2 teaspoons.

    To break it down, about eight grams of sugar. It is said to contain only four calories per gram, as opposed to 32 by-table sugar, as per a Healthline report.

    Not just in Diet Coke, it is used across sugar-free drinks and additives, both in India and abroad.

    Expand
  2. 2. The Risk Factor

    In 1981, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. It has maintained the same for more than four decades since then.

    So, what exactly is this accepted daily limit? An adult weighing 60 kg would have to consume between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda – depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage – every day to be at risk.

    Notably, the JECFA, which is also a WHO committee, is also reviewing aspartame use again and will make its decision public on 14 July.
    Expand
  3. 3. How Dangerous Is 2b Carcinogen?

    IARC classifies things that could potentially cause cancer in human beings. They have four categories:

    • 1: Causes cancer

    • 2a: Probably causes cancer

    • 2b: Possibly causes cancer

    • 3: Unclassifiable as a cancer risk

    To reiterate, the Reuters report says that the IARC is moving aspartame up to a class 2b carcinogen. This means it "possibly" causes cancer.

    For a larger context, here are the following items that are also 'possibly cancerous'.

    • Coconut oil soaps

    • Aloe vera

    • Pickled vegetables

    • Talcum powder

    Expand
  4. 4. Does This Make Aspartame Safe?

    Aspartame is also certified as safe for human consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and is used across 100 countries, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Australia.

    It has largely been found to be safe except in phenylketonurics – an inherited inability to metabolise phenylalanine, which is one of the two amino acids in aspartame.

    In India, the usage is permitted within acceptable limits in parts per million (PPM), as per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)

    • Carbonated water: 700 ppm

    • Non-carbonated water-based beverages: 600 ppm

    • Biscuit, bread, cakes: 2200 ppm

    • Indian sweets: 200 ppm

    • Jams jellies: 1000 ppm

    • Sugar-based/free confectionery: 10000 ppm

    • Chocolates: 2000 ppm

    • Ice cream: 1000 ppm, flavored milk: 600 ppm

    Expand
  5. 5. But There Are Some Health Concerns

    According to Dr Subhash Kumar Wangnoo, endocrinologists have been aware of controversies or side effects surrounding artificial sweeteners for years, he told FIT earlier for an article.

    He went on to explain how with the help of meta-analysis of several trials, it was found that the use of non-sugar sweeteners for the purpose of losing weight is, in fact, ineffective.

    "Those who consistently used NSS showed no reduction in body fat or body weight."
    Dr Subhash Kumar Wangnoo

    Substituting sugar with sugar-less substances such as stevia, the difference in calorie intake is not much, added Dr Aggarwal. An individual may actually end up consuming more food than required to make up for those lost calories leading to an overall increase in calorie intake.

    Further, adverse effects such as increased incidents of Type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and increased morbidity were identified in individuals using non-sugar sweeteners on a daily basis, explained Dr Wangnoo.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is Aspartame?

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

This makes it less sweet than other artificial sweeteners, but even one gram of aspartame has a sweetness intensity of roughly 2 teaspoons.

To break it down, about eight grams of sugar. It is said to contain only four calories per gram, as opposed to 32 by-table sugar, as per a Healthline report.

Not just in Diet Coke, it is used across sugar-free drinks and additives, both in India and abroad.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Risk Factor

In 1981, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) said aspartame is safe to consume within accepted daily limits. It has maintained the same for more than four decades since then.

So, what exactly is this accepted daily limit? An adult weighing 60 kg would have to consume between 12 and 36 cans of diet soda – depending on the amount of aspartame in the beverage – every day to be at risk.

Notably, the JECFA, which is also a WHO committee, is also reviewing aspartame use again and will make its decision public on 14 July.

How Dangerous Is 2b Carcinogen?

IARC classifies things that could potentially cause cancer in human beings. They have four categories:

  • 1: Causes cancer

  • 2a: Probably causes cancer

  • 2b: Possibly causes cancer

  • 3: Unclassifiable as a cancer risk

To reiterate, the Reuters report says that the IARC is moving aspartame up to a class 2b carcinogen. This means it "possibly" causes cancer.

For a larger context, here are the following items that are also 'possibly cancerous'.

  • Coconut oil soaps

  • Aloe vera

  • Pickled vegetables

  • Talcum powder

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Does This Make Aspartame Safe?

Aspartame is also certified as safe for human consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and is used across 100 countries, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Australia.

It has largely been found to be safe except in phenylketonurics – an inherited inability to metabolise phenylalanine, which is one of the two amino acids in aspartame.

In India, the usage is permitted within acceptable limits in parts per million (PPM), as per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)

  • Carbonated water: 700 ppm

  • Non-carbonated water-based beverages: 600 ppm

  • Biscuit, bread, cakes: 2200 ppm

  • Indian sweets: 200 ppm

  • Jams jellies: 1000 ppm

  • Sugar-based/free confectionery: 10000 ppm

  • Chocolates: 2000 ppm

  • Ice cream: 1000 ppm, flavored milk: 600 ppm

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

But There Are Some Health Concerns

According to Dr Subhash Kumar Wangnoo, endocrinologists have been aware of controversies or side effects surrounding artificial sweeteners for years, he told FIT earlier for an article.

He went on to explain how with the help of meta-analysis of several trials, it was found that the use of non-sugar sweeteners for the purpose of losing weight is, in fact, ineffective.

"Those who consistently used NSS showed no reduction in body fat or body weight."
Dr Subhash Kumar Wangnoo

Substituting sugar with sugar-less substances such as stevia, the difference in calorie intake is not much, added Dr Aggarwal. An individual may actually end up consuming more food than required to make up for those lost calories leading to an overall increase in calorie intake.

Further, adverse effects such as increased incidents of Type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and increased morbidity were identified in individuals using non-sugar sweeteners on a daily basis, explained Dr Wangnoo.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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