Aspartame and cancer: a nutritionist perspective

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Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener used in diet sodas and many other products labeled sugar-free.

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This week, the World Health Organization announced that aspartame, the chemical that gives products like Diet Coke their distinctly sweet taste, has been added to its list of potential carcinogens.

The decision came from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which said on Thursday that there is some limited evidence linking aspartame to the development of cancer in humans. This puts the popular sweetener in the same category as aloe vera extract and some types of pickled vegetables.

However, even though the link between aspartame intake and cancer is tenuous, Meghan Windham, a registered dietitian with Texas A&M University Health Services, says there are many more reasons to consider cutting back on aspartame and other sweeteners. artificial. As with all things, she says, moderation is key.

If someone likes to have an occasional diet soda, that’s no big deal, Windham said. But if we drink 12 a day, it’s probably not the best choice, whether it’s carcinogenic or not.

What does this classification actually mean?

IARC classifies carcinogens and potential carcinogens into several categories:

  • Group 1: carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3: Not classifiable as regards carcinogenicity to humans

The agency placed aspartame in the least risk possibly carcinogenic category, meaning evidence of its carcinogenic properties remains limited. However, Windham said, that doesn’t mean IARC’s statement should be completely discounted.

There’s certainly no need to worry if something like this is coming out, he said. I work with a lot of students and this is a question I get often: Should I have these artificially sweetened products? So I think there’s always been some level of concern, and that’s just bringing it into the spotlight.

So, do I have to give up Diet Coke?

Following the IARC announcement, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, a group made up of scientists from WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, announced guidelines on the amount of aspartame a person can consume safely.

According to their figures, the daily intake of the artificial sweetener shouldn’t exceed 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. That means a person weighing 150 pounds could consume about a dozen diet sodas a day and still be considered safe, at least when it comes to cancer risk.

Windham Council? Don’t even get close to that number.

Too much of anything is not a good thing, she said. Just because 12 diet drinks a day is safe, it’s not the best choice nutritionally. When we think about sugary drinks in general, whether they’re sweetened with stevia, truvia, sucralose, aspartame, or even actual sugar, nutritionally there isn’t much. There is usually no protein, no healthy fats, they are not high in fiber. So if we drank them all day to sustain ourselves, it probably wouldn’t be the best.

However, she said, that doesn’t mean anyone should go cold turkey with artificially sweetened beverages. Just as with processed meats containing nitrates and nitrites that WHO classifies in the upper category of possibly carcinogenic, there’s generally nothing wrong with consuming these products occasionally.

I always say everything in moderation, Windham said. Ideally, we should focus on good ol’ water, low-fat milk, and other sources of hydration that don’t contain sugar or any kind of artificial sweetener. But when we have populations, perhaps a type 2 diabetic or someone with a medical condition where they need to choose lower levels of actual sugar, some of these diet drinks are beneficial for them. So I encourage it in those populations who maybe want to take a step back from regular sugary drinks.

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