Health & Lifestyle

The products you didn’t know contained aspartame, from mouthwash to cough medicine

Reports suggest the World Health Organization could declare aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ meaning it increases the risk of developing cancer.

What is aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that was first developed in the 60s and is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.

This means less is needed gram per gram than sugar to achieve the same sweet result, making products that contain it have fewer overall calories.

Unlike sugar it also does not raise blood-sugar levels and thus can be used as alternative source of sweetness for diabetics.

Chemically it is made up of three substances aspartic acid (40 per cent), phenylalanine (50 per cent) and methanol (10 per cent).

What is it found in?

In a wide variety of products that market themselves as being ‘diet’ or ‘sugar-free’.

The most famous examples are soft drink giant Coca-Cola’s diet sodas, Diet Coke and Coke Zero as well as sugar-free gums like Extra’s.

Other examples include low fat yogurts. 

Is there aspartame in Coke Zero and Pepsi Max too?

Yes. Both products list aspartame in their ingredients list.

Other soft drink brands like some Fanta flavours, Lucozade and Dr Pepper also contain the artificial sweetener.

What are its dangers?

Aspartame has been linked to a host of general medical issues including headaches, dizziness and stomach upsets.

However blind trials, where participants don’t know if the product they consume has the sweetener, have failed to replicate this.

But there have been broader health concerns for years, including that they cause cancer, alter the gut biome, cause depression, and paradoxically even contribute to obesity by increasing people’s appetites.

However, health and food regulators have repeatedly declared them safe to use following ‘a rigorous safety assessment’.

There is one exception, which is for people with phenylketonuria, a rare inherited condition. 

People with phenylketonuria cannot process phenylalanine, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of aspartame.

If people with phenylketonuria consume phenylalanine it can build up in their blood eventually damaging their vital organs. 

It’s for this reason that aspartame must be listed as an ingredient on products that contain it.  

Only about one in 10,000 people have the condition.  

What does the potential ruling mean?

If confirmed it would see the WHO body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), link aspartame consumption to cancer.

However, there are several degrees of the strength of the cancer risk it could be given.

According to reports it could be listed as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ a status shard by substances like Aloe vera extract, the metal lead, and several colouring agents. 

For comparison the IARC has declared red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, one stage above the status aspartame could be given.

However, even if found to be ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans an individual’s risk could vary immensely.

The IARC establishes its rating based on evidence linking a substance to cancer, not the actual risk itself. 

This would be determined by a separate body, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives, who would provide advice on individual consumption levels alongside national health bodies.

In theory, this could see the NHS, for example, advise a healthy limit of consumption of products containing aspartame, similar to those it does for red and processed meat.

More broadly an IARC ruling on aspartame’s cancer risk could see consumer backlash, with customers shunning products containing them over cancer fears.

Similar boycotts have occurred from other IARC rulings.

This could lead to companies changing the formulation of their products.

Could this see products like Diet Coke be given a cancer warning?

Unlikely. Such rules are left up to individual countries.

But no similar warnings have been placed on red or processed meats in the UK despite stronger links to cancer being found according to past IARC rulings.

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