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Should we worry about the artificial sweetener aspartame?

Wednesday, July 19, 2023 10:48 AM

By NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently made headlines by reporting that aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in everything from diet soda to toothpaste, may have the potential to cause cancer in humans.

The agency’s finding was based on “limited evidence,” and prompted other agencies to say they still believe a limited amount of aspartame is safe to consume each day.

Both sides of the debate agree that more research is needed to determine whether artificial sweeteners are harmful to humans.

artificial sweetener aspartameSo, what is aspartame, and should we avoid it altogether?

What is aspartame?

Aspartame — better known by brand names like NutraSweet and Equal — is an artificial sweetener that’s been used in a variety of products since the 1980s, including diet soda, gum, cereal, toothpaste and ice cream.

One way to determine if a product contains aspartame is by checking the nutrition label.

Does it increase your risk of cancer?

The IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans based on a study that provided “limited evidence.”

The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) concluded that the data that the agency evaluated indicated no reason to change the recommended acceptable daily intake of aspartame.

The Food and Drug Administration has set the acceptable daily intake for aspartame at 0-40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

An adult weighing about 150 pounds would have to ingest a lot of aspartame to exceed the recommended amount per day – about 9 to 14 cans of diet soda in one day would do it.

While experts say the recommended daily intake of aspartame is still safe, organizations such as the American Cancer Society have called for additional research on aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

“I would recommend limiting daily intake as well as consider switching to drinking mostly water, water flavored with fruit, or unsweetened beverages such as iced teas,” said Doreen Berard, RD, LDN, oncology and wellness dietitian with Edward-Elmhurst Health.

“Drinking a lot of soda or sugary drinks can contribute to weight gain, and that may increase your risk for cancer.”

Are there foods that increase your risk of cancer?

Even though the debate over aspartame will continue, experts say focusing on balance, moderation and choosing healthy, unprocessed options will help keep you healthy and reduce your risk of disease.

More than aspartame, experts recommend avoiding known carcinogens such as alcoholic beverages and tobacco.

Red meat and processed meat have been associated with an increased risk of colon and rectum cancer, and evidence also suggests they’re associated with other cancers as well, such as prostate and pancreatic cancer.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends no more than 12-18 oz of cooked red meat (beef, pork, lamb) per week, Berard said.

Find a doctor.

Learn about cancer services at NorthShore University HealthSystem.