Each week, OMRF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Judith James opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
I’ve heard that the World Health Organization declared aspartame a carcinogen. As regular Diet Coke and Coke Zero drinker, should I be worried? Is it time for me to give up artificial sweeteners?
Dr. James Prescribes
Last week, a WHO committee put aspartame, one of the world’s most popular artificial sweeteners, on a list of things that could cause cancer.
It’s important to note a couple of things. First, in listing aspartame as “possibly” carcinogenic, the WHO bypassed two stronger classifications: causes cancer and probably causes cancer. That means the experts looked at the evidence and found not that aspartame definitely or even likely causes cancer, only that there is some suggestion that it might cause cancer.
Second, the WHO list of compounds that possibly cause cancer is long, and it contains things that most of us wouldn’t think twice about using or consuming: aloe vera, coconut oil soaps and pickled vegetables, just to name a few.
There have been many large studies of aspartame, and most have failed to show any links between the sweetener and cancer. Indeed, that is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority have both concluded that aspartame is safe for the general population.
It is true that one large study found a very slight increase in cancer among those who used aspartame regularly versus those who didn’t consume it at all. However, the association was extremely slight: 33 out of 1,000 cancer cases for aspartame users to 31 out of 1,000 in non-users. Even if you ignore all the potential hidden variables that could also cause this difference, what it would mean is that aspartame increased overall cancer risk by 0.2%.
We should also remember the alternative to artificial sweeteners: sugar. And sugar comes with its own risks, including obesity, diabetes and increased cancer risk.
Of course, water will always be the best choice. Unsweetened tea is also a good option. But if the choice is between sugared and artificially sweetened drinks, the evidence is far from clear that it’s time to give up aspartame.
Do you have a health query for Dr. James? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may be answered in a future column!