Aspartame - Where's the real risk?

Aspartame has been in the news lately but for all the wrong reasons. A leaked WHO report set damaging headlines for the product. But what was the real risk for aspartame? And could similar adverse media headlines affect your product?

Assessments of the health impacts of the non-sugar sweetener aspartame were released this month by the 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).

Reports initially highlighted aspartame as a carcinogen however the full details have now been provided citing “limited evidence” for carcinogenicity in humans. IARC classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans (IARC Group 2B) and JECFA reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg body weight.  Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released (

The IARC uses four categories: 1 - causes cancer; 2A - probably causes cancer; 2B - possibly causes cancer and 3 - no evidence available on cancer risk.

Aspartame was classified as 2B, "possibly carcinogenic", on the basis of limited evidence for cancer in humans (specifically hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer).

Other possible 2B carcinogens in the group include aloe vera, bracken ferns, lead and working as a hairdresser.

The scale does not say how much exposure you need to raise your cancer risk - it just identifies the substances as hazards.

JECFA reviewed the data on aspartame consumption and said adults can safely consume up to 40mg per kilo of body weight.

This does not change the daily limits recommended previously.

That means an adult who weighs 70kg could consume 2,800mg of aspartame a day.

A can of diet drink typically contains about 200mg of aspartame. So a 70kg adult could drink 14 cans without going over the safe daily limit for aspartame.

Professor Robin May, the FSA's chief scientific adviser, said: "JECFA's report supports the FSA's view that aspartame is safe to consume at current permitted use levels."

In December 2013 European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a full risk assessment of aspartame, concluding that aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for the general population (including infants, children and pregnant women).  The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day) was considered protective for the general population. Consumer exposure to aspartame is estimated to be well below this ADI by EFSA.


There has therefore been no changes to any ADI amount or new safety data put forward by the WHO however the reporting of this has certainly raised public concern on this food sweetener which in turn may impact on a brand reputation.

The real risk was therefore more in the adverse publicity than in any real food safety concern.  It is important for all food producers to be prepared for developing science and reports and to ensure, as far as they can, there is clear and even handed responses available that put transparency and consumer safety as paramount.  

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Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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