Is the sweetener in Diet Coke giving people cancer? Here's what you need to know.

There's a lot of talk going around about Diet Coke right now.

Last week, news broke that aspartame, a common artificial sweetener found in the soft drink, will reportedly be categorised as one that "possibly" causes cancer. 

Sources told Reuters that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the World Health Organisation's cancer research arm – is set to list aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" for the first time in July. 

It comes as a separate WHO committee, the Joint WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization’s Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), is currently reviewing the sweetener.

An IARC spokesperson told The Guardian, "IARC has assessed the potential carcinogenic effect of aspartame (hazard identification)... Following this, the joint FAO/WHO expert committee on food additives will update its risk assessment exercise on aspartame, including the reviewing of the acceptable daily intake and dietary exposure assessment for aspartame."

Both the IRAC and JECFA will release their findings on July 14. 

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about aspartame and whether you should stop drinking Diet Coke.

What is aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial non-sugar sweetener, which you can find in drinks such as Diet Coke and Coke Zero, Extra chewing gum, several low-calorie desserts and some yoghurts.

"Aspartame has been in use in food since the 1980s and is one of if not the most commonly used non-sugar sweeteners, used in about 6,000 products worldwide," Professor Oliver Jones, a chemistry professor at RMIT University, told Mamamia. 


"It is commonly added to food and drink to replace table sugar (sucrose) as it is roughly 200 times sweeter than sucrose."

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Should we stop drinking Diet Coke? 

While the news has sent some to question whether they should stop drinking their favourite sugar-free fizzy drinks, ahead of the IARC results, Jones believes we shouldn't have to.

"We haven’t seen the actual IARC report yet but assuming the press reports are correct and they classify aspartame as 'possibly carcinogenic', this does not mean you will get cancer if you drink Diet Coke.

"The IARC classifies things according to four main categories... 'possibly carcinogenic' is the second bottom category and other things in this box are mobile phone use and aloe vera – things most of us use fairly regularly."

Image: IARC.


So... should we be worried?

Again, Jones believes there is no current cause for concern.

"The IARC is not a food regulatory agency... All it does is look at the possibility of a hazard (e.g. cancer) existing; it does not look at the risk, which is the likelihood of the hazard occurring, and in this case they aren’t even very sure there is a hazard as they have used the second-lowest risk category."

"Think of it a bit like driving a car. The hazard is that you might get in an accident and be hurt or die, but the risk is low enough that most of us don’t think it will be an issue."

What will it mean if the IARC list aspartame as "possibly carcinogenic"?

"We will have to wait and see but, in my view, probably not a lot," said Jones.

"Major food safety agencies like FSANZ The US FDA, the UK FSA and the European food safety authority all view aspartame as safe after extensive review. All the major food safety agencies weigh up not only the hazard but also the risk.

"The question is not 'does aspartame cause cancer or not', but does it do so at the level we are exposed to it? The answer, I think, is no."

Feature Image: Scott Olson/Getty.

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