WHO’s cancer research arm International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), is all set to declare artificial sweetener aspartame as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ in July, a Reuters report said. Aspartame is used in popular products like Diet Coke, Mars’ Extra chewing gum and some Snapple drinks. WHO last month released a guideline that NSS (non-sugar sweeteners) do not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children and that the use of such sugar alternatives had undesirable effects like increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults. (Also read: Aspartame sweeteners ‘possibly carcinogenic’? What are the alternatives?)
Experts, however, say that it is the high intake of aspartame that could have a carcinogenic effect in the human body and lower doses do not seem to pose such health hazard.
“The artificial sweetener such as aspartame was actually regulated by FDA in US. Now the most important thing is that FDA has set the acceptable daily intake for aspartame at 50 mg per kg of body weight per day and European Union has recommended a slightly lower Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame which is 40 mg per kg per day. So, to consider aspartame as a potential carcinogenic we also need to look for the amount of aspartame which we intake during a day. So, if the amount is reaching the ADI of 40 to 50 mg per kg per day, then only it is carcinogenic to the human body. So, for doing that a 60 kg adult would have to consume at least 12 cans of diet soft drink every day,” says Dr Pooja Babbar, Consultant, Medical Oncology, CK Birla Hospital, Gurugram.
Dr Babbar in a telephonic conversation with HT Digital also talks about other carcinogens in our foods and types of cancers that they put us at risk of.
Sugar or artificial sweetener, which one is the bigger villain?
Both are harmful if more than the desired amount is consumed. We cannot say one is more harmful than the other. Any food item taken in limited amount is good. Even a normal oil or anything that is taken in excess can become carcionogenic. More harmful among the two is aspartame. WHO has not put sugar into any criteria of carcinogenic
What is it about aspartame that has put it in focus out of all artificial sweeteners?
Most of the artificial drinks now contain aspartame that’s why the focus. Aspartame itself is not carcinogenic, it is potential carcinogenic if it is taken more than the desired amount. There are some reports on mice done by an Italian group which states that it could be a source of carcinogenic, but it is not proven.
What is more harmful – sugar or aspartame in a glass of juice or aerated drink?
If you are diabetic and health conscious, plus your HBA1C is in prediabetic range, blood sugar levels are always borderline or high, if you are older than 50, then I would say (you should have) aspartame, but in a very limited amount. It is usually less than 20 gm. But if you don’t have any such problem and you are a young person, and your consumption of sugar is not that much, you can prefer sugar over aspartame.
What are the other potentially possibly carcinogenic substances that people use in daily life and that WHO should review? For instance, reusing edible oil make it carcinogenic.
Cooking in plastic utensils could be harmful, overuse of microwave could be harmful, extreme temperatures of food – extreme frozen sausages, preserved food, pickle preserved by nitrate, ajinomoto, artificial sweeteners, artificial colouring agents, they all should be reviewed by WHO.
Are carcinogens on rise in our foods and drinks? To what extent it could be contributing to growing cancer cases? What kind of cancers can carcinogens in our food lead to?
Carcinogens in foods are on rise and they are definitely contributing to cancer cases. 10-20% cancer cases are due to genetic or family history. 80% cancer cases in adults are acquired due to environment and in environment food plays a major role. Consumption of outside food, syrups, soda, artificial sweeteners, artificial colours, preservatives, has increased more than ever before. Red meat in excess is harmful, less amount of vegetable, dietary fibre, antioxidants, nuts, less consumption of different coloured fruits and salads can lead to these growing cases. Oesophagus cancer, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, stomach, colon, rectal cancers are on rise due to carcinogenic in our food.
It is believed that certain aerated drinks can weaken bones. What other ways it can affect our health negatively?
Aerated drinks can weaken our bones by absorbing calcium. It actually affects health negatively because people who drink aerated drinks regularly, their Vitamin D is very low because it prevents absorption of both calcium and Vitamin D in the body, so definitely any drinks which even contains caffeine weakens the bone.