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Are Artificial Sweeteners Carcinogenic? WHO Report

Next month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), is poised to declare one of the world’s most widely used artificial sweeteners a potential carcinogen.


This move will put it in direct opposition to both regulators and the food industry. But what lead to this recent development? And what will be the future of sugar substitutes?


Before answering this question, let’s identify what exactly nonnutritive sweeteners are.

What are artificial sweeteners?


Chemically synthesized substances known as artificial sweeteners, sugar substitutes, nonnutritive sweeteners, or high-intensity sweeteners are used as an alternative to table sugar to sweeten foods and beverages.


Artificial sweeteners are significantly sweeter than table sugar, so only small amounts (200 to 20,000 times less) are necessary to achieve the same level of sweetness.


Since these sweeteners are used in such small quantities, they have little to no caloric value, which is why they are often referred to as nonnutritive. So, while they seem healthy, there have been indications of cancer development due to their consumption in the past.


Thus to identify any possible health harms caused by these sweeteners, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) conducted safety studies on them.


However, the findings revealed no evidence that they cause cancer or any other harm to humans. Therefore, the FDA has deemed these 6 types of artificial sweeteners safe for consumption.


  1. Saccharin

  2. Aspartame

  3. Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K or Ace-K)

  4. Sucralose

  5. Neotame

  6. Advantame.

A detailed look into the animal studies that suggest a possible correlation between high-intensity sweeteners and cancer


Some concerns have been about the potential link between artificial sweeteners and cancer. These concerns first arose when early studies suggested that the combination of cyclamate and saccharin, as well as cyclamate alone, may be associated with the development of bladder cancer in laboratory animals, particularly male rats.


While these findings have not been definitively proven in humans, they have led to ongoing research and scrutiny of the safety of artificial sweeteners.


Moreover, saccharin, another commonly used artificial sweetener, has also been linked to the development of bladder cancer in rats when consumed in high doses.


In fact, back in 1981, saccharin was included in the US National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens as a substance that could potentially cause human cancer. However, mechanistic studies, which examine how a substance works, have yielded mixed results, and further research is needed to determine the true extent of the health risks associated with artificial sweeteners.


What led to the strife between WHO & Companies using Sugar Substitutes


In 2019, an expert group of 29 scientists from 18 nations gathered and designated aspartame as a high priority for assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monographs program between 2020 and 2024.


Earlier this month, the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, finalized its ruling after meeting a group of external experts. The report’s findings aim to assess whether the sweeteners are potentially harmful or not based on all the published evidence.


However, it doesn’t account for how much a person can safely consume the sugar substitutes.


The IARC’s determination is considered the initial and crucial step toward comprehending carcinogenicity. Meanwhile, the additives committee JECFA evaluates the risk of a particular type of harm, like cancer, happening in specific conditions and levels of exposure.


Currently, JECFA is also conducting a review of aspartame use. Their meeting for the same started at the end of June, and they plan to release their findings on July 14, which is also the day the IARC will announce their decision.


This has led to open criticism by the U.S. and Japanese industrialists and regulators for the assessments being unclear to the public since they will be released a the same time.


The disapproval comes as the IARC’s previous rulings on various substances have sparked concerns among consumers, resulting in lawsuits. And, following up the same, manufacturers have had to adjust their recipes and find substitutes.


Now both the industry manufacturers and the general public are awaiting the ICRA and JCEFA’s reports. We will be covering the issue and further updates in our following blog. So, make sure to subscribe to Wellnest Tech Blog and Newsletter here.

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