Aspartame is about to be proclaimed by the WHO as a possible carcinogen. What makes this any different from beer and wine, which are known to be carcinogenic already?


Obviously, alcoholic drinks present other dangers (driving drunk, alcoholism), but my question is specifically related to the cancer-causing nature of aspartame-sweetend soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, comparatively.

In: 1668


There are different categories for carcinogens. Alcohol is in Class 1, which means there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. Aspartame is a apparently going to be a Class 2B, which means there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. 2B has things like EMF from cell phones, ginkgo biloba, and carpentry. 2B “possibly carcinogenic” is different from 2A which is “probably carcinogenic”. None of these account for the dose that would be required to get cancer from a substance.

The World Health Organization have lists of chemicals for which they have looked at the available research to try to find out if their are carcinogenic or not. This is so that regulatory agencies in each country do not have to go through the same process as the WHO did. The chemicals are grouped into carcinogenic (group 1) and non carcinogenic (group 3). But then there are lots of chemicals for which there was too little evidence for either. These are put into probably carcinogenic (group 2A) and probably not carcinogenic (group 4). We need more research into these before we can say for sure.

The final group, the possibly carcinogenic chemicals (group 2B) are the chemicals for which there is almost no conclusive research at all. This is the group that the WHO puts chemicals that they investigate but could not find any studies saying they are carcinogenic or not, or an equal amount of studies for either. So this is the kind of default group. It should be noted that a lot of chemicals fall into this group because they are hard to study. In the case of aspartame a lot of consumers use it in an attempt to improve an unhealthy diet so there is naturally a lot of cancer among its users. And because cancer can take a long time to develop and is very random a proper double blind experiment is extremely costly.

As for alcohol there is some of the same problems with the studies as with aspartame. However there is a much stronger relationship between alcohol and cancer then between aspartame and cancer. Even when correcting for all the possible lifestyle factors such as obesity there is clear evidence that people who drink more alcohol is more likely to get cancer. But when looking at people who drink diet soda the evidence is ambiguous. So therefore alcoholic beverages is classified in group 1.

Nearly everything will cause cancer at very high exposure levels and *everything* will cause health problems, including death, if you consume too much.

An important thing to understand about a lot of modern health information has to do with the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement that established the WTO. Under that agreement, the EU is not allowed to impose barriers on US goods except for a few limited reasons, one of which is public health.

The US has historically outcompeted Europe in agricultural and food products and European countries historically imposed high tariffs and other barriers on US agricultural/food goods to prevent the EU market from being dominated by the US. With the adoption of the Marrakesh Agreement, Europe could no longer rely on tariffs to protect its market, so it switched to the public health rationale instead.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, there was a big push by the EU to expand the threshold under which products would be considered to be carcinogenic, to the point that they could declare anything coming from the US to be a potential carcinogen and impose restrictions on it. This push was not meant to affect EU products, but ended up became an important ideological point for left wing political parties across the globe.

As a result, the push to expand the scope of what is considered to be carcinogenic spread to the WHO, which has been increasingly declaring products and substances to be suspected carcinogens even though no rational person would think that they were based on the level of exposure necessary for them to cause cancer.

The recent reclassification of aspartame is a good example of this – there has been no change in the understanding of the level of aspartame exposure that is necessary to cause cancer. To be at *any* risk of cancer, you would need to drink several gallons of diet soda a day, every day, for years.

The same is true of alcohol. Alcohol does not cause cancer under normal exposure levels. However, if you’re an alcoholic who is drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol every day for decades, then alcohol does increase your chance of developing liver and digestive cancers.

Anytime that you hear that something is a carcinogen or possible carcinogen, you should take that news with a gigantic grain of salt. Again, nearly everything that you eat, drink, or breath is a carcinogen at sufficient levels of exposure. Under normal levels of exposure, nothing is any worse than anything else.

The nature of the human body is that it ages. You will eventually die as a result of that aging process. There is nothing you can do to prevent yourself from dying and the only factors that have ever been shown to have a meaningful impact on life expectancy are exercise and calorie intake – moderate exercise and low calorie intake are both associated with a longer lifespan than any other lifestyle.

IARC isn’t WHO even though all media love to say it is. They can have different opinions. For example, WHO declared that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer, while IARC declared it’s probably carcinogenic.

Also, IARC is known to say that everything is at least possibly carcinogenic and almost everything is probably carcinogenic, so you don’t have to worry about them saying something is probably carcinogenic. Them saying so doesn’t mean that it was ever a factor in anyone’s cancer. You most likely take things that are possibly carcinogenic according to IARC every day.

If anything, IARC saying a substance is possibly carcinogenic (2B) like aspartame is more of an evidence that it doesn’t cause cancer as IARC puts almost anything there when they don’t find studies that show it causes cancer. If they find a few studies that show it causes cancer, but also many that show it doesn’t, they’ll say it’s probably carcinogenic (2A).

Alcohol is highly carcinogenic as many studies have showed it and quantified it. Aspartame isn’t highly carcinogenic at the quantity it is taken by the population.