Sweet poison: WHO likely to label aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic’; what does that mean for the Indian food industry?

The WHO is likely to add aspartame, an artificial low-calorie sweetener, to its list of chemicals which can possibly cause cancer in humans. Will such a classification help regulate artificial sweeteners that are widely added to food products, such as soft drinks, biscuits, pastries, yoghurt, jams and jellies, in India? Gaon Connection talks to some experts.

Pratyaksh SrivastavaPratyaksh Srivastava   30 Jun 2023 3:24 PM GMT

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Sweet poison: WHO likely to label aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic’; what does that mean for the Indian food industry?

The FSSAI will probably not issue any orders to curb its use as such.

Next time you reach out for a ‘diet’ soft drink thinking it is a healthier option, think again! You may be gulping down a drink laced with aspartame, a commonly used artificial sweetener, which, as per recent news reports, is likely to be classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Aspartame, a chemically derived low-calorie sweetener which is 180 times sweeter than table sugar, is used in a wide range of products.

These include carbonated soft drinks, beverages, confectionery, bakery products, breakfast cereals, sugar-free puddings, sugar-free jams, powdered beverages, and ready-to-cook foods. It is widely used in foods and beverages marketed as "sugar-free" or "diet”.

Multi million dollar FMCGs add aspartame to their products to cut costs and at the same time enhance the taste of their packaged products. All at the huge cost of public health.

It was yesterday, on June 29, that Reuters, a British news agency, reported that two unnamed sources with ‘knowledge of the process’ have said that International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is WHO’s cancer research arm, will classify the sweetener in its list of agents that are ‘possibly carcinogen’.

“An IARC spokesperson said both the IARC and JECFA (the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization's Expert Committee on Food Additives) committees' findings were confidential until July, but added they were "complementary", with IARC's conclusion representing the first fundamental step to understand carcinogenicity” mentioned the Reuters report.

In total, there are a total of 322 agents which figure in WHO’s category of ‘possibly carcinogenic’, which also includes aloe vera extract, alcoholic beverages, coffee and coal dust.

Also Read: Sugar, vegetable oil, whole grain – Busting myths around packaged foods

Weak food regulations; missing food labelling

The recent news report has sent ripples of alarm around the world. Gaon Connection approached sector experts to understand the implications for India.

Chandra Bhushan, an expert on industry and regulatory regime, said that the food regulations in India were very lax and the enforcement is even worse.

FSSAI is a statutory body established under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India, and is a consolidating statute related to food safety and regulation in India. It approves addition of aspartame (in specified quantities) in the following products in India:

  • Soft drinks
  • Biscuits, bread, cakes and pastries
  • Traditional sweets
  • Jam, jellies and marmalades
  • Chocolate
  • Sugar based/sugar free confectionery
  • Chewing gum/bubble gum
  • Custard powder mix
  • Fruit/vegetable nectar
  • Ice cream, frozen dessert and pudding
  • Flavoured milk
  • Ready to serve tea/coffee based beverages
  • Yoghurt

Talking about the recent news report and about aspartame getting classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic’, Bhushan, who is chief executive officer of iForest (International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology), a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, told Gaon Connection, “The classification of aspartame as possibly carcinogenic only has a cautionary appeal to it. This category is the third category in the list of four categories of carcinogenicity. Governments around the world do not issue orders to ban or curb a substance because of this classification. So naturally, FSSAI is not expected to issue any orders to curb its use as such."

The much larger issue is about the labelling of the edible products in India and the poor awareness levels among the people, said Bhushan.

“The labelling on the products should be done in a way that the general public can understand. Putting the names of chemicals on the labels is useless because mostly people are not aware of these chemicals. The labelling guidelines should be changed so that people can make informed decisions,” he added.

But why do companies knowingly add aspartame to their products?

Aspartame was invented in 1965 by an American chemist named James M. Schlatter. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), companies manufacturing edible products use aspartame to cut costs on sugar to sweeten the products.

“Sweeteners or sugar substitutes, such as aspartame, sucralose, and stevia derived substances, are ingredients used to sweeten and in some cases enhance the flavor of foods. Some sweeteners are much sweeter than table sugar, and smaller amounts are needed to achieve the same level of sweetness as sugar in food,” it mentions on its website in an article titled as Aspartame and Other Sweeteners in Food.

What can aspartame do after entering our bodies?

A number of research studies highlight the health risks posed by aspartame. According to U.S. Right to Know — a nonprofit investigative public health research and journalism group — the use of aspartame can cause cancer, brain tumours, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, neurotoxicity, brain damage and mood disorders.

According to a research paper published on March 4, 2022 in PLOS Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, despite having far lower calories than cane sugar, “artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame and acesulfame-K), which are used in many food and beverage brands worldwide, were associated with increased cancer risk”.

“These findings provide important and novel insights for the ongoing re-evaluation of food additive sweeteners by the European Food Safety Authority and other health agencies globally,” the research mentioned in its conclusion.

The USFDA has established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) per day. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established a slightly lower ADI of 40 mg/kg per day. An ADI of 40 mg/kg of body weight/day was established by scientists in the Food Directorate of Health Canada.

The acceptable daily intake, or ADI, is the average daily intake over a lifetime that is expected to be safe for human consumption based on significant research.

Artificial sweeteners approved by FSSAI in India

In India, FSSAI has approved six artificial sweeteners for use in food. These include aspartame, saccharin sodium, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and isomaltulose.

According to FSSAI’s Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020, every package containing aspartame shall carry the warning and/or declaration, in a rectangular box, saying: “Not meant for children”; “​​Not recommended for phenylketonurics; for children suffering from seizure disorders; pregnant and lactating mothers”

Talking about the speculation surrounding the news about the upcoming announcement by WHO, Amit Khanna, Director of the Program for Sustainable Food Systems at Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based think tank, said that it was too early to comment about the implications.

“Such reports are not strong enough to be commented on, there could be an umpteen number of reasons behind such reports. To respond to such a report would be speculative but if WHO actually makes a formal announcement, the Indian food regulators should act appropriately in future,” Khanna told Gaon Connection.

Meanwhile, Satish Gadi, a Gurgaon-based physician, who has retired from the Indian Army and has served as the Chief Medical Director of the Indian Railways, pointed out that governmental intervention can’t alone bring about a positive change in food safety.

“It all boils down to the socio-economic conditions of the people at large. For a country where hunger and deprivation itself is a major concern, it is not worth it to expect people to be concerned about the carcinogens. The FSSAI cannot alone manage such issues and public health is the onus of the entire government, society and the welfare groups.”

"Our scientific panel is examining and evaluating the WHO guideline in detail," a spokesperson of the FSSAI was quoted in a news report.

#Aspartame #WorldHealthOrganization #ArtificialSweetners 

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