No, a can of Diet Coke won’t give you cancer


Diet Coke addicts rejoice—a second report from the World Health Organization has confirmed that an ingredient found in the drink is safe at “real-world exposure levels.”

Last month it was revealed in a leaked report the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was set to label aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener used in Diet Coke, as a carcinogen.

However, this assessment was the first of two from branches of the WHO due to be released on July 13.

A second report from a body made up of WHO and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) experts—named the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives’ (JECFA)—sought to identify how much aspartame humans can safely consume before it becomes a health risk.

The results—published on the same day as the first report—have been applauded by stakeholders in the health and beverage community, many of which had criticized the IARC report for not providing context around how much aspartame can be safely consumed.

Among the observers of the IARC report was Dr Susan Elmore, a U.S.-based toxicology expert, who explained: “JECFA is the world’s leading authority on food ingredient safety and, unlike IARC, takes into account both risk and hazard when it conducts its safety review, meaning its conclusions provide the most comprehensive assessment of any actual impact on human health.

“Since IARC only looks at the hazard potential and not risk, it does not paint a full picture of the safety of an ingredient, like aspartame, and as a result can cause unnecessary public confusion,” Elmore added.

According to JECFA’s findings—which were conducted by 13 members and 13 experts from 15 countries—the average 154lb person would need to consume more than nine to 14 cans of diet beverages every day over the course of their life to raise safety concerns. 

‘Overwhelming body of evidence’

The International Council of Beverages Associations—a trade organization for the nonalcoholic beverage industry—welcomed the clarification for the confidence it gives to consumers.

Kate Loatman, the director of the body, told Fortune: “After rigorous review, this landmark WHO and FAO finding further strengthens confidence in the safety of aspartame will play a vital role in informing consumers as they consider all options to reduce sugar and calories in their diets.

“JECFA’s comprehensive conclusion that aspartame is safe builds on the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence for more than four decades, as well as positive determinations by food safety authorities in more than 90 countries.”

The news will come as a relief to beverage producers as similar rulings in the past have resulted in a massive impact on businesses that use the ingredients. In 2015, the IARC committee conducted a review that found glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”

By 2021 German drug and pesticide business Bayer had lost its third appeal against U.S. court verdicts that awarded damages of $86 million to customers blaming their cancer on use of its glyphosate-based weed killers.

Robert Rankin, President of the Calorie Control Council—an international association representing the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry—said that “obviously” the level of consumption outlined by JEFCA that would cause aspartame to be dangerous is “not realistic, recommended, nor is it ‎aligned with the intended use of these ingredients.”

He told Fortune consumers have a “strong desire” for reliable information, adding that to assert that aspartame is anything other than safe would be “misleading, inaccurate, and fear-mongering to the nearly 540 million people globally living with diabetes and millions of others managing their body weight who rely on and/or chose products that contain low- and no-calorie sweeteners.” 

Trade association American Beverage—which counts Coca-Cola distributor Abarta and Pepsi-Cola among their members—said the fact that not only the FDA, but food agencies worldwide, have continually found aspartame safe “makes us confident in the safety of our products.”

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