Unhelpful doesn’t cover it. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) findings into the potential negative health implications of aspartame have come up with – to severely gloss over nuance in the report – nothing useful.

Aspartame, though, became the latest addition to the IARC’s 2B list of “possible carcinogens” on Friday. Yet the ingredient remains safe if below 40mg per kilo of body weight is consumed a day – that’s up to 14 cans of sweetener-filled sugar-free cola for an adult of 70kg.

It’s not to say more research into aspartame shouldn’t be carried out – clearly a definitive answer is needed. But the IARC only looked at the hazard potential of aspartame and not the risk. This isn’t reflected in the consumer-facing headlines, which painted a potentially dangerous picture of aspartame. ‘The WHO says aspartame could cause cancer,’ and ‘Sweetener considered a carcinogen’ gives a small flavour of the narrative that followed the WHO’s findings. 

Directed to making a healthier choice

Downing 14 cans of sugar-free soft drinks in one day is, of course, possible. But it’s unlikely many consumers are doing so – or at least not on a daily basis.

The issue right now is the publication of such findings puts at risk recent progress made by government and the industry to significantly reduce sugar consumption among both children and adults – the results of which are tangible.

Since enforced in 2018, the soft drinks levy has led to over 47,000 tonnes of sugar being removed from drinks. Manufacturers have reformulated to not only avoid the tax, but to reduce consumption of products with known health implications – when consumed in abundance – including obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

Sales of sugar-free drinks since the levy was enforced rocketed, with Coke Zero Sugar, Pepsi Max and Red Bull sugar-free all more than doubling value sales [The Grocer’s Britain’s Biggest Brands 2018 v 2023].

This has resulted in more options for consumers, while education, clever branding and marketing has helped direct shoppers towards healthier choices. And that is the important word: choice. No one is saying an occasional Coke Original is wrong. It has its place, but that place is not daily hydration. The likes of celebrity chef turned health campaigner – and early sugar levy adopter – Jamie Oliver would surely agree.

Sugar levy has reduced obesity in areas

Sweeteners, including aspartame, have played a positive role in UK childhood obesity rates, it is argued. Recent studies claimed the soft drinks levy led to a reduction in obesity among girls aged 10 and 11, with a greater drop among the most deprived children. Another estimate claims the levy has also prevented over 5,000 cases of obesity in year six girls in England.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says being overweight or obese increases the risk of getting the 13 most prevalent types of cancer, while a British Heart Foundation analysis showed obesity causes the equivalent of 31,000 deaths a year. Bowel Cancer UK research claimed obesity causes more cases of cancer than smoking.

Assessments of aspartame’s safety have to be handled with care. Research, which should continue –  because we do need a definitive answer – must provide actionable evidence, or risk unravelling positive steps elsewhere.