Popular artificial sweetener aspartame that is widely used in diet drinks, ice creams, chewing gums since 1980s, has been declared as a possible cancer-causing agent by WHO but citing limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results were released jointly by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). (Also read: Switching from sugar to artificial sweeteners? Here are dos and don’ts to keep in mind)
“The findings of limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals, and of limited mechanistic evidence on how carcinogenicity may occur, underscore the need for more research to refine our understanding on whether consumption of aspartame poses a carcinogenic hazard,” said Dr Mary Schubauer-Berigan of the IARC Monographs programme.
It’s not just the cancer fear, aspartame could also pose a range of health risks from headaches, digestive disorders, allergic reactions to cardiovascular issues.
“Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is commonly used as a sugar substitute in a variety of food and beverage products. While extensive scientific research has been conducted on aspartame, the majority of studies have found it to be safe for consumption within acceptable daily intake levels. However, there are a few reported health risks associated with aspartame consumption apart from cancer,” says Dr Amit Bhargava, Director, Medical Oncology, Fortis Cancer Institute, Vasant Kunj.
“Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener widely utilized in dietetic beverages because it is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. This substance is composed of aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol, which also can produce ill effects on human health,” says Dr Ashok Kumar Jhingan, Senior Director, Centre For Diabetes, Thyroid, Obesity & Endocrinology.
Experts however added that these health risks are generally associated with high levels of consumption or specific health conditions.
Dr Amita Bhargava shares a list of possible health risks that aspartame could cause:
1. Phenylketonuria (PKU)
Individuals with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) lack the enzyme necessary to metabolize phenylalanine, an amino acid found in aspartame. Aspartame contains phenylalanine and consuming it can be harmful to people with PKU. Therefore, foods and beverages containing aspartame are typically labelled with a warning for individuals with this condition.
2. Headaches and migraines
Some individuals may be sensitive to aspartame and experience headaches or migraines after consuming products containing it. However, scientific evidence linking aspartame to headaches is limited and inconclusive, and many people can safely consume aspartame without experiencing these symptoms.
3. Allergic reactions
Although rare, some individuals may have an allergic reaction to aspartame. Symptoms can include hives, itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, or other allergic reactions. If you suspect an allergic reaction to aspartame, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly.
4. Gastrointestinal issues
In some cases, excessive consumption of aspartame may lead to gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, or abdominal pain. These symptoms are typically mild and resolve once aspartame intake is reduced or eliminated.
5. Metabolic effects
Some studies have suggested a potential link between aspartame consumption and metabolic effects, such as changes in insulin response or glucose metabolism. However, the existing evidence is limited and inconclusive, and more research is needed to establish a clear association.
Dr Jhingan adds other health risks associated with aspartame consumption:
6. Risk of cardiovascular disease
Some studies have suggested that the consumption of artificial sweeteners may be linked to an increased risk of certain cardiovascular issues, such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
7. Increased risk of depression
Some studies have shown a correlation between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of depression, which is thought to be due to the effects on brain chemistry and serotonin levels.
8. Weight gain
Non-sugar sweeteners do not really help with weight loss. Replacing free sugars with aspartame does not help with weight control in the long term. When aspartame is digested, it produces a compound called phenylalanine which has been shown to interfere with an enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphate (IAP), which, when functioning properly, helps to prevent obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Since aspartame breakdown produces phenylalanine, it could very well contribute to weight gain when consumed frequently.
“It’s worth noting that the above-mentioned risks are generally associated with high intake levels that exceed the acceptable daily intake (ADI) established by regulatory agencies. As with any food or additive, moderation is key, and it’s advisable to follow recommended guidelines for aspartame consumption. If you have specific health concerns or conditions, it is always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietician for personalized advice,” says Dr Bhargava.
Courtesy – www.hindustantimes.com