Press Release 14.07.2023

Additive aspartame is possibly carcinogenic and has no benefit for weight control, says WHO

foodwatch: Health risk not acceptable in food

Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, 14 July 2023:  Today, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) officially classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. From diet sodas like Coca-Cola Zero, Pepsi Max and Sprite Zero to Nestlé’s Lindahl dairy products and Mentos chewing gums: The artificial sweetener aspartame is currently being used in over 2.500 food and beverage products in Europe and is also known in the EU under the E number E951.

Manuel Wiemann, campaigner at foodwatch: “That's bitter. A sweetener that is possibly carcinogenic has no place in food and beverages. Consumers often think foods and beverages containing non-sugar sweeteners are better for their health than those with sugar. In reality they may be exposing themselves to another completely unnecessary health risk, whilst WHO confirmed that sweeteners like aspartame do not even help in controlling weight.”

At a press briefing, WHO expert Dr Francesco Branca advised consumers to limit their consumption of sweeteners as well as sugar. WHO also stressed out, that there still is a lack of scientific data on the safety of aspartame.

Replacing sugar by artificial sweeteners does not help for weight control 

WHO and foodwatch warn that more and more artificial sweeteners are being used as part of the reduction of sugar content in food and beverages. Since May 2023, WHO advises people to stop using artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, for weight loss. A systematic review of current scientific evidence by the WHO suggests that the consumption of non-sugar sweeteners is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, as well as body weight gain. Furthermore, the consumption of sugar-free sweeteners does not provide long-term benefits for body weight. 

According to WHO, the choice for consumers shouldn’t be about a soda with sugar or a soda with sweeteners. “There should be a third choice: it is water”, said Dr Branca from WHO. Especially children should not get used to a sweet taste.

As uncertainty remains, and to safeguard public health, foodwatch is calling upon the European Commission, specifically the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), to do a new re-evaluation of aspartame as a food additive. “By highlighting the possible cancer risks of aspartame and the need for further research, WHO sent a clear warning sign about the hazard of this additive. EU should act in line with the precautionary principle", says Wiemann.

The EFSA is responsible for the evaluation of food additives in the EU. The authority is currently assessing several sweeteners on their genotoxicity. EFSA last assessed aspartame in 2013. foodwatch is criticising this process as too slow. The consumer organization calls for any sweetener or food additive that is potentially harmful to consumers' health to be removed from the European market until its safety is proven. 

The EU and the Member States have a responsibility to protect European citizens from potentially harmful substances, based on the precautionary principle that is enshrined in the Treaty and General Food Law Regulation of the EU. This approach to risk management asserts that, if a given policy or action could cause harm to the public or the environment and if there is still no scientific agreement on the issue, the policy or action in question should not be carried out.  

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