If Aspartame Is a ‘Possible Carcinogen,’ Can You Still Drink Diet Coke?

By Stephanie Brown 

Updated on July 14, 2023

 Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

The World Health Organization (WHO) today classified aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener, as a possible carcinogen. The decision was based on limited evidence, and doesn’t change the recommended acceptable daily intake levels for aspartame.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many low-calorie products like Diet Coke and sugar-free Jell-O. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decades ago, but some people continue to question the safety of this sugar substitute.1

The WHO’s cancer research group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), uses four categories to classify carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents.

Aspartame is now listed in Group 2B alongside things like gasoline, lead, and whole-leaf aloe vera extract. Group 1 consists of harmful substances with “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans,” including tobacco smoke and ultraviolet radiation.2

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Aspartame: questions and answers (Q&A).

To be placed in Group 2B, the research group must find “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans,” or “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals,” or “strong evidence that the agent exhibits key characteristics of carcinogens (regardless of whether from exposed humans or human cells or from experimental systems).”2

“For current consumers of diet drinks, this news isn’t cause for major alarm. Aspartame has been classed in IARC’s Category 2B, which means there’s limited evidence that it might cause cancer, not that it does or is likely to,” Alexandra Jones, PhD, Senior Research Fellow in Food Policy and Law at the George Institute for Global Health in Australia, said in a statement.

How Dangerous Is Aspartame?

Some people have turned to aspartame and other artificial sweeteners as a way to reduce their sugar intake. Consuming too many added sugars has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.3

But with the news that aspartame is a “possible carcinogen,” some people may wonder if the swap from sugar to aspartame is worth it.

“No one ingredient or food increases cancer risk. It’s the amounts and patterns of food we consume over time, along with other genetic and lifestyle factors, that influence health risk,” Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian in Charleston, South Carolina, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell in an email.

Aspartame is one of six sweeteners currently approved by the FDA as “safe for the general population under certain conditions of use.” The FDA determined that it’s safe for most people to consume up to 50 mg/kg body weight of aspartame every day.1

In tandem with IARC’s possibly carcinogenic classification, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 40 milligrams/kilogram of body weight.

“To exceed this, a 150-pound person, who would have a daily limit of 3,400 milligrams, would have to consume 19 cans of diet soda or more than 85 individual packets of aspartame every day over the course of their lifetime,” Petitpain said.

The available research on aspartame and cancer has offered some mixed results. A controversial animal study from 2006 linked aspartame to cancer in rats,4 but an observational study published the same year didn’t find a link between aspartame and an increased risk of brain cancers in humans.5

However, an observational study in 2022 suggested that aspartame may increase overall cancer risk in humans, especially obesity-related cancers and breast cancer.6

The FDA maintains that aspartame is safe for most people and the website states that the agency has “reviewed more than 100 studies designed to identify possible toxic effects, including studies that assess effects on the reproductive and nervous systems, carcinogenicity, and metabolism.”1

“When a substance or product may have cancer-causing potential, it is essential to weigh the benefits and health risks. The most important piece is for individuals to have transparency on the safety information to make an informed decision,” Sudarsan Kollimuttathuillam, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at City of Hope in California, told Verywell in an email.

Try Another Sweetener If You Are Worried About Aspartame

If you’re concerned about aspartame, look at nutrition labels to determine if your favorite products contain this artificial sweetener. It is also known by the brand names NutraSweet and Equal.7

You don’t have to give up all sweets if you decide to avoid aspartame. Petitpain recommends using some of the other FDA-approved non-nutritive sweeteners like saccharin or sucralose or one of the sweeteners, such as stevia, monk fruit, or allulose, that the FDA has said are “Generally Recognized as Safe.”

She also said that some people can decide to consume foods and drinks with low amounts of added sugar.

“Examples include beverages such as water, unsweetened tea or coffee, 100% juices or milk and snacks including fruits, nuts, unsweetened yogurt and other whole foods,” she said.

For now, the only strong health advisory against aspartame is for people with phenylketonuria (PKU) who can’t break down the protein phenylalanine which is found in aspartame.

“If you have concerns about aspartame or its potential impact on your health, it is always advisable to consult with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized advice based on your specific circumstances,” Kollimuttathuillam said.

What This Means For You

Researchers are still studying the possible link between aspartame and cancer in humans. For now, they say it’s still safe to consume products like Diet Coke in moderate amounts.

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Aspartame Official Line

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is commonly used as a sugar substitute in various food and beverage products. It is made up of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is significantly sweeter than sugar, which allows for the production of low-calorie or sugar-free products.

Aspartame is used as a sweetener in a wide range of products such as diet sodas, sugar-free candies, chewing gums, yogurt, and many other processed foods. It provides a sweet taste without the added calories of sugar, making it popular among people who are looking to reduce their sugar intake or manage their weight.

Regarding potential harm, aspartame has been a topic of debate and controversy. However, numerous scientific studies and regulatory agencies have consistently deemed aspartame safe for consumption within acceptable daily intake levels.

That being said, some individuals may have certain sensitivities or medical conditions that make them more susceptible to adverse effects from aspartame. People with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder, cannot metabolize phenylalanine properly and should avoid consuming aspartame. Additionally, some individuals may experience mild side effects such as headaches, dizziness, or digestive issues when consuming aspartame, although these effects are generally rare and vary from person to person.

It’s worth noting that regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have reviewed extensive scientific evidence and established an acceptable daily intake for aspartame, which indicates that it can be consumed safely by the general population within reasonable limits. However, if you have specific concerns about aspartame or any other food additive, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional.

The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame, as established by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), is a measure of the amount of a substance that can be consumed daily over a person’s lifetime without appreciable health risk.

The ADI for aspartame is set at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in the United States and 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in the European Union. To put it in perspective, for a person who weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds), the ADI would be 2,800 milligrams per day.

The amount of aspartame in a litre of diet soda can vary depending on the brand and formulation. However, as a general guideline, a typical diet soda may contain anywhere from 100 to 200 milligrams of aspartame per 355 millilitres (12 fluid ounces) serving.

Considering a litre contains approximately 1,000 millilitres, you can estimate that a litre of diet soda may contain around 280 to 560 milligrams of aspartame. It’s important to note that these values are approximate and can vary among different brands and products. Checking the specific nutritional information or ingredients list on the packaging of the diet soda you are consuming will provide more accurate information about the aspartame content.