Last week, it was reported that the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, plans to declare the artificial sweetener aspartame a possible carcinogen. Reuters broke the news on June 29.
The move could have massive implications for the food service industry and regulators alike and is already making headlines across the globe. But multiple experts tell TODAY.com the classification isn’t as dramatic as it may seem and that, even though such information is important for consumers to have, there are several factors to consider before dumping diet sodas altogether.
What is a carcinogen?
A carcinogen refers to anything that’s capable of causing cancer, such as a substance, organism or another agent, according to the National Institutes of Health. Carcinogens can be a natural part of the environment, like ultraviolet rays from the sun, which can cause skin cancer, or humans may create them, like cigarette smoke or car exhaust. Carcinogens usually cause cancer by mutating cells’ DNA.
Is aspartame a carcinogen?
The IARC plans to classify aspartame as a possible carcinogen. The National Cancer Institute also points to a 2022 study of almost 103,000 adults, which found that those who consumed higher amounts of aspartame had a slightly higher risk (1.15 times) of developing cancer, especially breast and obesity-related cancers.
The move to classify aspartame as possibly carcinogenic means the agency is saying that, based on all the available evidence, the sweetener could cause cancer — though the agency didn’t say how likely it is, nor does it define the quantity of aspartame one has to consume to be at risk, Reuters reported.
The agency has four categories for classifying the cancer risk of certain foods, chemicals and goods. Those are 1, 2a, 2b and 3. Class 1 means the item can cause cancer; class 2a means it probably does; class 2b means it possibly does; and class 3 means it carries no cancer risk. The agency has reportedly decided to declare aspartame a class 2b carcinogen, which places it alongside aloe vera, dry cleaning and pickled vegetables, per the IARC website.
It’s also worth noting that the IARC categories do not address the magnitude of risk — for example, alcoholic beverages and plutonium, a radioactive metal, are both considered class 1 carcinogens. What’s more, “while developing cancer is certainly scary, not all carcinogens are necessarily dangerous in reasonable amounts — think sunlight, for example,” Tara Schmidt, lead registered dietitian for the Mayo Clinic Diet, tells TODAY.com.
What is aspartame made of?
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1981, is made of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, according to the FDA. Its full name is L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester.
It’s designed to “provide sweetness not usually found naturally in foods,” Dr. Donald Hensrud, professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, tells TODAY.com.
What products contain aspartame?
Aspartame is a critical ingredient in diet sodas like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, and other diet drinks like Crystal Light. Aspartame is also found in sugar-free chewing gums and food products, like sugar-free Jell-O. It’s also popular in packet form and is commonly used to sweeten coffee and tea. Aspartame is sold under the brand names Nutrasweet, Equal and Sugar Twin, according to the FDA.
Aspartame products tend to be lower in calories than their sugar-based counterparts.
How much aspartame is in diet soda?
Worried that WHO’s upcoming announcement means you’ll have to ditch your favorite diet soda? Diet Coke and other products don’t actually contain that much aspartame, the experts explain.
Because aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, the amount of aspartame needed to sweeten one 12-ounce can of diet soda is very small — only about 192 milligrams, or 0.007 ounces.
How much aspartame is too much?
“The FDA has established an acceptable daily intake for aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day,” Jen Messer, lead registered dietitian at Jen Messer Nutrition, tells TODAY.com. “This means that a person weighing 150 pounds would still fall within an acceptable daily intake by consuming about 17 12-ounce cans of diet soda per day.”
Of course, drinking that much diet soda isn’t recommended, and Hensrud says “that even low-level consumption (of aspartame) over a long period of time may have adverse health effects, but … the exact level of risk can be difficult to determine, and this uncertainty is where the confusion is.”
Is diet soda better than regular soda?
Given that diet soda often contains aspartame, which may increase a person’s risk of cancer, is it better to drink regular soda if you’re craving a sweet, bubbly beverage?
Unfortunately, there’s no a simple answer, as both diet soda and regular soda are “associated with risks,” says Hensrud.
Adds Schmidt: “It’s important to not draw the conclusion that regular soda is now superior to diet. It’s clear that regular and diet soda are both low in nutrient-density.”
And when weighing potential risks associated with either type, remember that regular, high-calorie soda can increase risk of obesity, which, in turn, increases cancer risk. “We’ve got plenty of research linking obesity and poor diet to cancer risk,” says Schmidt.
Can diabetics drink diet soda?
Diet soda is frequently used as a substitute for regular soda by people with Type 2 diabetes because “choosing diet soda can help satisfy your craving for soda without causing a rise in your blood sugar levels,” explains Messer.
Even still, some research shows that “even individuals with Type 2 diabetes need to be cautious and mindful of the amount of diet soda and other diet foods they eat and drink,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
Is diet soda bad for you?
Because the IARC is only putting aspartame in the “possibly” causes cancer category, and because “there are currently no studies that show that aspartame causes cancer in humans,” says Messer, one’s risk of getting cancer by drinking diet soda remains very low, if it exists at all.
And there may be potential upsides of drinking diet soda to consider for some people. “Replacing sugary beverages with low- or no-calorie drinks can be beneficial for overall health,” says Messer. “They can also be a helpful way for individuals to transition from a high intake of sugar-sweetened sodas to more healthy alternatives.”
Eventually, that could mean ditching both regular and diet soda altogether and drinking water alone — an ideal you could shoot for, Naidoo says.
“While an occasional diet soda is probably OK, relying on either diet soda or regular soda is likely not a good idea for your overall health,” she says. “It’s important that people don’t panic at this announcement but use this information to make an informed choice about any food or beverages they are consuming that contains aspartame.”
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