WHO links aspartame to cancer, but news unlikely to have big effect on supplements

The World Health Organization has labeled the sweetener aspartame as a possible carcinogen. The declaration might boost the case for switching to natural alternatives in supplements.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

July 14, 2023

3 Min Read

The determination by the World Health Organization that the artificial sweetener aspartame may cause cancer is not good news from a public relations standpoint, but it is unlikely to have much effect on the supplement industry, especially in the domestic market. 

On Thursday, July 13, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO body, said it had found a possible link between exposure to aspartame and a hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer. The determination came after review of three large human studies conducted in Europe and the U.S. on the effect of artificially sweetened beverages. 

Such beverages are the primary way in which consumers are exposed to artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, a methyl ester of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide, is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose, so it is used at very tiny quantities in such formulations. That puts it in a similar sweetness range to other sugar replacements (both natural and artificial) such as ace-K, monk fruit extract and stevia. 

Nine cans of diet soda for average person 

The IARC pegged the same daily limit for an average (154 pounds) individual at 40 milligrams (mg) a day. That means such a person would need to drink more than nine cans of diet soda in a day (more for larger people) to exceed that limit. 

Related:EFSA Reaffirms Safety of Aspartame For Consumers

In addition to diet soda, aspartame is a common nonnutritive sweetener in chewing gum.   

Dr. Mary Schubauer-Berigan, a senior official at IARC, emphasized the possible link to cancer is based on limited evidence. 

"This shouldn't really be taken as a direct statement that indicates that there is a known cancer hazard from consuming aspartame," Schubauer-Berigan said at a news conference. 

FDA, CRN react 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was quick to react to the news, posting an update on a web page concurrent with the release of the news. 

“Aspartame being labeled by IARC as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer,” the agency noted. “The FDA disagrees with IARC’s conclusion that these studies support classifying aspartame as a possible carcinogen to humans.” 

Dietary supplement industry stakeholders also chimed in. 

“The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) first approved aspartame as a sweetener in 1974, and scientific evidence has continued to support the agency’s conclusion that aspartame is safe for the general population when made under good manufacturing practices and used under the approved conditions of use,” Andrea Wong, Ph.D., senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), said. “Aspartame remains an approved food additive in the United States. Recent separate announcements from IARC and JECFA do not change or detract from FDA’s decision, which takes into account safe levels of consumption.”  

Boost for natural sweeteners 

While some sports nutrition supplements, such as pre-workout BCAA formulations, feature nonnutritive sweeteners, most of those use a mixture of stevia and/or monk fruit extract along with ace-K. 

Sport nutrition ingredients expert Ralf Jäger, Ph.D., a principal in the consultancy Increnovo, said the primary effect of the WHO announcement would most likely be to accelerate the move toward natural sweeteners in pre-workout products, meal replacements and sports drinks.  

“I think it will strengthen that case even more,” Jäger told Natural Products Insider. “Back in the day performance nutrition was all about the performance. They didn’t care how it tasted. But now, with performance nutrition products appealing to new consumers, taste is a big issue.” 










About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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