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WHO Admission: Aspartame “Possibly” Carcinogenic

WHO Admission: Aspartame “Possibly” Carcinogenic
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…yet the FDA, responsible for protecting our health and making sure our food is safe, continues to go to bat for Big Food. Action Alert!

Would you be concerned if you and your children were consuming a possible carcinogen every day? One that Big Food and the FDA has said is a safe way of avoiding sugar?

Late last week, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled the artificial sweetener aspartame (marketed as NutraSweet and Equal) as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. Predictably, Big Food has attacked the IARC’s findings, creating an entirely new industry-funded front group that continues to try to defend aspartame in the face of mounting evidence showing it’s dangerous. The FDA was also quick to dig in on aspartame’s safety despite years of evidence demonstrating the cancer link. The fact that the food industry and the agency responsibility for regulating that industry are in lockstep when it comes to defending a possible carcinogen that millions of Americans are consuming every day is yet another example of the crony capitalism that is threatening our health and the health of our children. We must act now to stop it.

The IARC’s conclusion that there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity” for aspartame was based on studies showing a positive association between consumption of artificially sweetened beverages containing aspartame and cancer. Despite the IARC’s classification, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives announced that recommended daily limits for consumption of the sweetener would not change.

In response to the news of aspartame’s new classification, the FDA sprang into action…in defense of Big Food. In its response, the agency states that it disagrees with the IARC’s conclusion and that FDA scientists do not have any safety concerns with aspartame.

Those following the research know that the IARC’s classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen has been a long time coming. Starting in the early 2000s, research from the prestigious Ramazzini Institute in Italy showed that low-dose exposure to aspartame over a lifetime caused rats to develop lymphomas, leukemias, tumors, and liver cancer. In 2020, scientists using state-of-the-art diagnostic methods confirmed 92 percent of the diagnoses of lymphomas and leukemias in the Ramazzini Institute’s research.

Then human studies started emerging, confirming the results of this animal research. A 2012 study found human evidence of a link between aspartame and cancer—but only for men. This may have been down to the fact that men have higher levels of an enzyme that converts methanol, a breakdown product of aspartame, to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. More recent studies caused an advisory group to the IARC to recommend a high-priority assessment of aspartame in 2019. One followed 477,206 participants across 10 European countries for over 10 years and found that those who drank sweetened soft drinks, including those containing aspartame, were at higher risk for liver cancer. Another study found consumption of artificially sweetened drinks was linked with liver cancer in people with diabetes. A third study of 102,865 adults in France found that those who consumed higher amounts of aspartame had an increased risk of breast cancer and obesity-related cancers.

All of this evidence led scientists to issue a call to all national and international public health agencies to urgently reexamine aspartame’s health risks.

The fact that aspartame is a key ingredient for the global soft drink industry, valued at $413 billion, has surely played a role in the stubbornness of the FDA and regulators from around the world to take action against the sweetener. Diet sodas represent a quarter of those sales; Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi Zero Sugar, and Diet Mountain Dew all contain aspartame. 

We’ve seen this type of script before. Well-heeled special interests can “war game” complex and often uncertain science by funding studies that deliver industry-friendly results (“Cigarettes don’t cause cancer!” or “Radiation from cell phones is totally safe!” or “GMOs are perfectly healthy!”), failing to publish adverse findings, and attacking those who dissent or raise questions. Regulators like the FDA can then claim that there isn’t a consensus among scientists of a negative health effect, giving themselves an excuse not to take decisive action to protect the public. And, of course, industry often has friends in high places thanks to the revolving door with regulatory agencies.

Cancer isn’t the only health effect that has been linked with aspartame. Studies have found some people are predisposed to getting severe headaches after ingesting aspartame; other research has linked artificially sweetened beverage consumption with increased risk of stroke and dementia. As it happens, one of those who discovered his extreme neurological sensitivity to aspartame many years ago is our own Executive and Scientific Director, Rob Verkerk Ph.D.

In saying that aspartame is safe, the FDA is once again putting profits before people. We also recently reported how FDA rules are allowing artificial sweeteners to be hidden in foods labeled as “healthy.” If we don’t generate a strong grassroots response, the FDA will continue to shill for Big Food. Let’s not let the FDA get away with it!

Action Alert! Write to Congress and the FDA urging it to recognize the potential human carcinogenicity of aspartame and impose a ban. Please send your message immediately.

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