The World Health Organization made a declaration Friday that surely came as a surprise to diet soda drinkers everywhere: Aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener found in many popular “diet” or “sugar free” drinks, could be carcinogenic to humans.
An agency of WHO reported that aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on “limited evidence” that the artificial sweetener could cause liver cancer.
But don’t throw out that low-calorie drink just yet. Experts, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have since criticized WHO’s announcement, arguing that it may cause undue alarm.
“‘Possibly carcinogenic to humans’ does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer,” says a release from the FDA in response to the announcement.
WHO also set a consumption limit on aspartame, recommending a maximum of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, which, for a 130-pound person, is equivalent to 12 cans of Diet Coke, NPR reported.
In 1981, the artificial sweetener aspartame was given the all-clear by the FDA. Over decades, aspartame became a commonly used ingredient in about 6,000 products globally, including popular drinks such as Diet Coke, Pepsi Zero and Coke Zero, as well as ice creams, gelatins and puddings.
“The announcement clearly states that although some evidence point towards a weak link between the consumption of aspartame and the occurrence of some cancers, the typical consumer is safe and should not be concerned,” Georgios Kryiazis, a pharmacologist and researcher at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine, told HuffPost in an email.
Artificial sweeteners have drawn controversy over the years, especially with studies linking aspartame and other artificial sweeteners to various risks, such as diabetes or obesity. But before the new classification on Friday, WHO had never publicly weighed in on the effects of an artificial sweetener like aspartame that has been used so widely for decades, according to The New York Times.
Though reports linking artificial sweeteners to health risks shouldn’t be ignored, Kryiazis emphasized that a vast majority of evidence suggests that reasonable use of aspartame or other artificial sweeteners is safe.
Additional factors regarding the new classification must be also considered as individuals determine how much of a concern aspartame consumption is to them now and if they should cut down, experts say.
For instance, Kryiazis said that WHO’s recommended daily consumption of aspartame — which remains the same under the new classification — doesn’t represent the average U.S. consumer, who takes in the aspartame equivalent of about two diet sodas a day. Even the most extreme users don’t typically consume more than the equivalent of five or six cans of soda, he added.
“For the high aspartame consumers who reach the 5-6 cans each day, it may be a reasonable choice to cut down,” Kryiazis said. “On the other hand, for the typical consumer, aspartame is safe. That might look like a couple of packets of Equal, a diet soda or two, or a flavored ‘light’ yogurt each day.”
Since health varies from person to person, experts recommend staying informed about scientific evidence and consume artificial sweeteners like aspartame in moderation based on their dietary needs and habits.
“It is very important to understand that every individual responds differently to the same dietary choices,” Kryiazis said. “For instance, five cans of diet soda per day could be harmless for one person, but for another one it may contribute to some, yet known, adverse health outcomes. Therefore, it may be desirable to cut down aspartame if consumed at these or higher levels.”