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WHO: Aspartame blacklisted. Is it carcinogenic?

Check out the latest WHO findings on the harmfulness of aspartame.

Emilia Moskal - AuthorAuthorEmilia Moskal
Emilia Moskal - Author
AuthorEmilia Moskal
Natu.Care Editor

Emilia Moskal specialises in medical and psychological texts, including content for medical entities. She is a fan of simple language and reader-friendly communication. At Natu.Care, she writes educational articles.

Learn more about our editorial process

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Ilona Bush - Reviewed byReviewed byIlona Bush
Verified by an expert
Ilona Bush - Reviewed by
Reviewed byIlona Bush
Master of Pharmacy

Ilona Krzak obtained her Master of Pharmacy degree from the Medical University of Wrocław. She did her internship in a hospital pharmacy and in the pharmaceutical industry. She is currently working in the profession and also runs an educational profile on Instagram: @pani_z_apteki

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Bartholomew Turczynski - Edited byEdited byBartholomew Turczynski
Bartholomew Turczynski - Edited by
Edited byBartholomew Turczynski
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Bartłomiej Turczyński is the editor-in-chief of Natu.Care. He is responsible for the quality of the content created on Natu.Care, among others, and ensures that all articles are based on sound scientific research and consulted with industry specialists.

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Nina Wawryszuk - Fact-checkingFact-checkingNina Wawryszuk
Nina Wawryszuk - Fact-checking
Fact-checkingNina Wawryszuk
Natu.Care Editor

Nina Wawryszuk specialises in sports supplementation, strength training and psychosomatics. On a daily basis, in addition to writing articles for Natu.Care, as a personal trainer she helps athletes improve their performance through training, diet and supplementation.

Learn more about our editorial process

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WHO: Aspartame blacklisted. Is it carcinogenic?
29 April, 2024
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You use sweeteners because they are healthier than sugar. The latest WHO report shows that this doesn't always have to be the case. Aspartame officially lands on the list of substances that may be carcinogenic.

If you are already standing over the dustbin holding all the diet drinks, yoghurts and sweetener you add to your tea - wait. The devil's not as scary as he's painted.

The devil's not as scary as he's painted.

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From this article you will learn:

  • What are the latest WHO findings on aspartame.
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  • How the acceptable daily intake of aspartame in the diet has changed.
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  • What side effects aspartame can cause.
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  • How to limit its consumption.
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See also:

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WHO: aspartame carcinogenic

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has long been looking at aspartame. It has now taken it under the microscope, analysing some 7,000 studies and expert opinions from around the world. Based on this, it published a report on 14 July 2023, adding aspartame to a group of products that may be carcinogenicand.

Does this mean we should get rid of popular sugar-free drinks immediately? Not necessarily.

"JECFA also considered the evidence on cancer risk, in animal and human studies, and concluded that the evidence for a link between aspartame consumption and cancer in humans is not convincing" - admitted Dr Moez Sanaa, head of the Food and Nutrition Division at WHO.

The WHO experts also point out that occasional consumption of aspartame is safe for most consumers, and that the addition of aspartame to the list of carcinogenic hazards is "raising a flag" and expressing the need for further robust research.

Classification of carcinogenic products according to WHO

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The WHO classifies products and substances with carcinogenic potential into four categoriesand:

  • 1 - carcinogens (causes cancer)
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  • 2A - substances that are probably carcinogenic (probably causes cancer)
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  • 2B - substances that may cause cancer (possibly causes cancer)
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  • 3 - substances not classified as a carcinogen (unclassifiable as a cancer risk)
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According to the latest report, aspartame has been assigned to category 2B, i.e. substances with possible carcinogenic effects. In the same group are, for example, diesel, phenoxy herbicides, methylmercury compounds... but also carpentry work, aloe vera, pickled cucumbers, ferns, cosmetics with coconut and 1108 other thingsand.

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If you have aloe vera or fern at home, don't throw the pot through the window just yet. After all, the carcinogenicity of substances is influenced by the way they are administered (e.g. some ingredients are only dangerous if they enter our respiratory tract) or by the daily dose. And it is this latter aspect that we should have the most questions about with aspartame.

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What is aspartame?

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First let's take a closer look at the new 'public enemy'. Aspartame is a table and industrial sweetener. It appears in product formulations under the designation E951. Its chemical name is Asp-Phe dipeptide methyl ester.

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Aspartame is characterised by its sweet taste, lack of caloric value and the fact that it does not raise blood glucoseand.

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Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Its sweetness is felt slightly later, but the sweet aftertaste lasts longer.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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It was originally used as a sugar substitute for diabetics. Later, the fit products industry also loved it. Nowadays, a large proportion of products labelled "sugar-free", "zero", "diet" or "light" contain aspartame in their ingredients.

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It is particularly liked in chewing gums, due to its long-lasting aftertaste.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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Suggested maximum daily intake of aspartame

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In 1981, JECFA set the acceptable intake of aspartame at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per dayand. This means that a person weighing 70 kilograms can safely consume 2.8 grams of aspartame per day. Is this a lot?"

A good example would be popular sugar-free fizzy drinks. The aspartame content in these varies from 50 mg to 125 mg per glass (230 ml). Assuming the highest aspartame concentration (125 mg) - there is approximately 0.8 g of aspartame in a large bottle (1.5 l) of the drink. This is quite far from the permissible limit. To reach the upper limit, our theoretical average person would have to drink 5.25 litres of such a drink (i.e. 3.5 bottles of our equally theoretical orangeade). 

Yes, some 21 glasses.

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There are, however, situations when, in addition to a drink, we happen to eat some fit bar sweetened with aspartame or other snacks and then it is easy to overdo the intake of this substance.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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Updated JECFA recommendation on aspartame

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According to a new JECFA report published alongside the WHO report, the acceptable amount of aspartame in a daily serving remains unchangedand. Despite aspartame's classification as a category 2B carcinogen on the list of carcinogenic hazards, the researchers did not find sufficient evidence to justify limiting the acceptable daily intake of this sweetener.

It is also worth noting that the US Food and Drug Administration disagrees with the recognition of aspartame as a potential carcinogen. It also allows a higher amount for daily consumption - 50 mg per kilogram of body weightand.

Can aspartame be safe if it is on such a list?

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Does aspartame harm health? According to the current state of medical knowledge: used in appropriate daily portions - rather notand. It is difficult to answer this question with certainty and unequivocally, as researchers have to rely on population studies in which it is very difficult to grasp the cause-effect relationship. One thing we can be sure of is that aspartame is harmful to people who suffer from phenylketonuria.

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People with phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder in which patients cannot convert phenylalanine to tyrosine, must avoid aspartame absolutely.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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What to replace aspartame with

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If you are using sugar substitutes for the sake of your figure, according to the WHO... you can stopand. In its latest recommendations, the World Health Organisation has retreated from such recommendations. Instead, it has replaced them with a common-sense approach to the use of sugar in diet - we should limit it from an early age.

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There are theories that the use of sweeteners is not at all a good step in the fight against obesity, as they fuel hunger and therefore further calorie consumption.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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Additionally, the use of sweeteners "doesn't teach" that the taste of sugar is actually negative, as it hides obesity and metabolic diseases, adds pharmacist.

So the best solution seems to be simply to eat a healthy, balanced diet and to satisfy the appetite for sweet flavours with fruit. And when it comes to diet drinks...

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The healthiest option is water. For flavour, you can add lemon juice or some fruit, mint or lemon balm leaves - creating your own flavoured water.
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Ilona Krzak.

Ilona Krzak Master of Pharmacy

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See also:

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Summary

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  • The WHO has listed aspartame as a substance that is potentially carcinogenic (category 2B).
  • The safety of aspartame depends primarily on its daily intake. JECFA has maintained the permissible daily intake of aspartame in the diet at 40 mg per kilogram of body weight.
  • To limit your intake of aspartame - and other sweeteners, including sugar itself - check the ingredients of the products you buy. Take care to eat a healthy diet, and choose water above all for drinking.
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FAQ

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. How many kilocalories does aspartame have?.

There are as many kilocalories in 100 grams of aspartame as in 100 grams of... sugar - 400! However, it has been declared a "calorie-free" substance because it is 200 times sweeter than sugar - instead of a teaspoonful, just a tiny pinch is enough.

. Where is aspartame banned?.

The European Union allows aspartame to be used as a sugar substitute in food, but some countries have restrictions or bans. In France, aspartame is banned in sweetened beverages. In Germany, it is not used in foods for infants and young children. In the UK, aspartame is used widely, but manufacturers are obliged to put a note to this effect on packaging.

. How much aspartame is in Coke Zero?.

There are 58 mg of aspartame in a glass (230 ml) of this drink. This is more than twice as much as Cola Light. This means that a large bottle of Cola Zero (1.5 l) contains less than 0.4 g of aspartame.

. In which products is aspartame found?.

Aspartame is often used as a sweetener in low-calorie drinks: fizzy drinks, fruit juices or energy drinks. It can also be found in food products such as yoghurts, desserts, candies, jelly beans, sugar-free chewing gum and ice cream. Aspartame can also be used to sweeten lozenges.

. What is aspartame used for?.

Aspartame is used as an artificial sweetener in food products and diet drinks. It is used as a substitute for sugar because it is much sweeter. It provides products with a sweet taste while reducing their calories.

. Is aspartame healthier than sugar?.

Both aspartame and sugar have their advantages and disadvantages. In theory, if you want to reduce the number of calories in your diet, aspartame would be a better option. Unfortunately, in practice, this calorie reduction may not be enough - the WHO does not currently recommend the use of sweeteners. Nevertheless, for people with diabetes, the benefits of swapping sugar for aspartame may have merit.

. Which sweetener is healthiest?.

It is best not to use any sweetener, simply put. In creating this text, we've searched for suitable substitutes, but each potentially has something behind it. The best thing to do is learn to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit and dairy and vegetables. The best dietary advice remains: eat a variety, don't overdo it, and be colourful on your plate. If you eat something sweet for a special occasion, everything will be OK.

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Sources

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Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released. (n.d.). Retrieved 14 July 2023, fromhttps://www.who.int/news/item/14-07-2023-aspartame-hazard-and-risk-assessment-results-released

Czarnecka, K., Pilarz, A., Rogut, A., May, P., Szymańska, J., Olejnik, Ł., & Szymański, P. (2021). Aspartame-True or False? Narrative Review of Safety Analysis of General Use in Products. Nutrients, 13(6), Article 6.https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13061957

Heinich, A. (2022, February 13). Aspartame E951. What does scientific research say about whether it is harmful? DIETARY ORG EN.https://dietetycy.org.pl/aspartam-e951-badania/

Huang, S.-Y., Sun, R., Chen, Y.-C., Kang, L., Wang, C.-T., Chiu, C.-F., & Wu, H.-T. (2023). Aspartame consumption during pregnancy impairs placenta growth in mice through sweet taste receptor-reactive oxygen species-dependent pathway. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 113, 109228.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2022.109228

Landrigan, P. J., & Straif, K. (2021). Aspartame and cancer - new evidence for causation. Environmental Health, 20(1), 42.https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-021-00725-y

List of Classifications - IARC Monographs on the Identification of Carcinogenic Hazards to Humans. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 July 2023, fromhttps://monographs.iarc.who.int/list-of-classifications/

List of classifications - IARC Monographs on the identification of carcinogenic hazards to humans. (n.d.). Downloaded 13 July 2023, fromhttps://monographs.iarc.who.int/list-of-classifications/

Roberts, H. J. (1988). Neurological, Psychiatric, and Behavioral Reactions to Aspartame in 505 Aspartame Reactors. In R. J. Wurtman & E. Ritter-Walker (Ed.), Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function (pp. 373-376). Birkhäuser.https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-9821-3_45

Rodrigues, H., Silva, C., & Martel, F. (2022). The effects of aspartame on the HTR8/SVneo extravillous trophoblast cell line. Reproductive Biology, 22(3), 100678.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.repbio.2022.100678

says, S. F. (2023, June 29). WHO to declare artificial sweetener aspartame as possible carcinogen. News-Medical.net.https://www.news-medical.net/news/20230629/WHO-to-declare-artificial-sweetener-aspartame-as-possible-carcinogen.aspx

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WHO | JECFA. (n.d.-a). Downloaded 13 July 2023, fromhttps://apps.who.int/food-additives-contaminants-jecfa-database/Home/Chemical/3018

WHO | JECFA. (n.d.-b). Retrieved 13 July 2023, fromhttps://apps.who.int/food-additives-contaminants-jecfa-database/Home/Chemical/62

Pavanello, S., Moretto, A., La Vecchia, C., & Alicandro, G. (2023). Non-sugar sweeteners and cancer: Toxicological and epidemiological evidence. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 139, 105369.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yrtph.2023.105369

Nutrition, C. for F. S. and A. (2023). Aspartame and Other Sweeteners in Food. FDA.https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/aspartame-and-other-sweeteners-food

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Meet the team
Emilia Moskal - Author

Natu.Care Editor

Emilia Moskal specialises in medical and psychological texts, including content for medical entities. She is a fan of simple language and reader-friendly communication. At Natu.Care, she writes educational articles.

Ilona Bush - Reviewed by

Master of Pharmacy

Verified by an expert

Ilona Krzak obtained her Master of Pharmacy degree from the Medical University of Wrocław. She did her internship in a hospital pharmacy and in the pharmaceutical industry. She is currently working in the profession and also runs an educational profile on Instagram: @pani_z_apteki

Bartholomew Turczynski - Edited by

Editor-in-Chief

Bartłomiej Turczyński is the editor-in-chief of Natu.Care. He is responsible for the quality of the content created on Natu.Care, among others, and ensures that all articles are based on sound scientific research and consulted with industry specialists.

Nina Wawryszuk - Fact-checking

Natu.Care Editor

Nina Wawryszuk specialises in sports supplementation, strength training and psychosomatics. On a daily basis, in addition to writing articles for Natu.Care, as a personal trainer she helps athletes improve their performance through training, diet and supplementation.

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