It’s official: Aspartame could cause cancer

My colleagues and I have been sounding the alarm for a while where artificial sweeteners are concerned. These sugar substitutes have been linked with numerous health problems, including metabolic disease, heart attack and stroke, migraines, anxiety, depression and kidney damage.

Yet the FDA continues to insist these sweeteners are safe when consumed in moderation. In fact, they’ve set an acceptable daily intake for each of the seven artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States. Most of these limits are far beyond the amount we would normally consume every day.

It’s no wonder people don’t know if they’re supposed to avoid these sweeteners. And a recent declaration by a leading global health body has only made things murkier…

WHO indicates aspartame may cause cancer

For the first time, the artificial sweetener aspartame has been listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The decision was based on what the WHO refers to as “limited evidence for cancer in humans (specifically for hepatocellular carcinoma, which is a type of liver cancer).” The agency also notes “limited evidence for cancer in experimental animals as well as limited evidence related to the possible mechanisms for causing cancer.”

Aspartame may be linked to cancer — seems pretty clear-cut, right?

But this is where it gets confusing…

Despite the IARC listing, another WHO arm, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), has reaffirmed its acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg per kg body weight for aspartame.

What that means is that if a can of diet soft drink contains 200 to 300 mg of aspartame, an adult weighing 70 kg would need to consume more than 9 to 14 cans per day to exceed the ADI.

And the FDA has gone its own way on the matter. The FDA says it disagrees with the IARC’s conclusion, noting it has reviewed the information included in the IARC review and identified “significant shortcomings” in the studies on which the decision relied. The FDA also referenced JECFA’s failure to raise safety concerns for aspartame under current levels of use and its choice not to change the ADI for the sweetener.

With that in mind, the FDA continues to recommend its own ADI for aspartame, which at 50 mg per kg of body weight is higher than JECFA’s.

Of course, the diet soda example above assumes people aren’t getting aspartame from other sources. And these days, we can’t assume that at all….

Aspartame is everywhere

According to the Calorie Control Council, aspartame is found in roughly 6,000 products worldwide ranging from carbonated and powdered soft drinks to condiments to candy, chewing gum and other prepackaged sweet treats. It can even be found in toothpaste and some pharmaceuticals such as vitamins and sugar-free cough drops.

Here are just some of the products aspartame may be hiding in:

  • Diet soda
  • Chewable vitamins and medicines
  • Sports drinks
  • Instant hot cocoa
  • Flavored water
  • Cereal
  • Nutritional bars
  • Jelly
  • Ketchup
  • Yogurt
  • Pudding
  • Microwavable popcorn
  • Syrup
  • Pedialyte
  • Bread, English muffins and other baked goods

Basically, if the product is labeled “diet,” “reduced calorie” or “sugar-free,” it likely contains aspartame or some other artificial sweetener.

Given how surrounded we are by aspartame, even if you aren’t chugging 9 cans of diet soda every day, you may be closer to hitting the ADI than you think.

But what if you aren’t? Isn’t having an occasional diet soda or using aspartame-sweetened toothpaste okay?

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be ingesting something that might possibly cause cancer down the road. Better to avoid aspartame completely than chance even a small amount.

Thankfully, as is the case with all food products, manufacturers are required to list aspartame on the label, making it easy to find — and avoid.

For those who are watching their weight and can’t imagine going without their favorite no-calorie sweetener, you may want to try natural sweeteners like stevia. Just make sure the stevia products you consume don’t also contain erythritol, which has been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular problems.

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Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released — World Health Organization

Aspartame and Other Sweeteners in Food — U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Aspartame, cancer and other health risks: What you need to know — CNN

Aspartame — Calorie Control Council

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.