It’s official: Ingredient in diet cola is linked to cancer, according to the World Health Organization

People have been saying for years that Diet Coke causes cancer, but a recent decision by the world’s top global health body has finally confirmed what we’ve all suspected for some time.

Health is a total minefield. From the counterintuitive and little-known risks of intermittent fasting to the terrifying repercussions of getting too little sleep, you often find yourself wondering if there’s anything left out there that’s actually, uncomplicatedly, good for you. Sadly, today we have received yet another blow as the WHO has designated one of the world’s most popular soft drinks (or, more specifically, the active sweetener in it) as a cancer risk, putting to rest the endless debates that have raged in the fitness community for years.

One of the world’s most commonly used artificial sweeteners, aspartame, which is what sweetens Diet Coke, will be labeled a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a leading global health body affiliated with the Organization World Health Organization (CHI). This decision pitted the sweetener used in many of the world’s most popular soft drinks and confectionery, not just Diet Coke, against the food industry and regulators.

According to inside sources, IARC experts finalized their ruling earlier this month, saying aspartame will be listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. The purpose of their evaluation was to determine potential dangers based on published evidence from scientific institutions around the world, but they don’t actually comment on safe consumption levels. This is where the WHO comes in, which is reportedly preparing individual consumption guidelines issued by their expert committee on food additives, known as the JECFA. There are many acronyms, but be patient.

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Previous IARC rulings on other popular ingredients have generated widespread concern, lawsuits, and even industry-wide lobbying for recipe changes; this new ruling on aspartame is expected to create a similar knock-on effect. While the IARC assessments can certainly be a bit longwinded and confusing to the lay-led public, hopefully the JECFA is also reviewing the use of aspartame. debate, much to the shock of the soda and candy industries.

However, it would be foolish for both the public and industry insiders to ignore the IARC ruling and rest on our laurels until WHO releases its report, given the considerable weight of the historic IARC rulings. In 2015, the committee concluded that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic,” which led to ongoing legal battles for big companies like Germany’s Bayer.

However, the IARC has also been criticized for causing unnecessary alarm and confusion with its different and complex levels of classification. The classification of aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic” implies robust but ultimately limited evidence of its potential to cause cancer, hence the need for a WHO review to truly seal its fate.

Unsurprisingly, industry stakeholders have expressed concerns about the timing of the IARC and JECFA trials, while American and Japanese regulators have made calls for careful coordination in an effort to avoid confusing the public or causing a potentially unnecessary uproar. The International Sweeteners Association (ISA) questioned the scientific thoroughness of the IARC review, while the International Council of Beverages Associations warned consumers were being misled into choosing sugary options over safe and much healthier alternatives without and at low sugar content.

PepsiCo, led by CEO Ramon Laguarta, has already made several changes to the recipes of its products. Image: WorldWarZeo

Aspartame has been studied extensively over the years, and global regulators have repeatedly cleared its use after reviewing the available evidence. However, observational studies have shown a slightly higher cancer risk associated with consuming larger amounts of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame. The methodology of the studies on both sides of the aisle has been questioned, including by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Major food and beverage companies have defended the use of aspartame, but recipe tweaks like those made by PepsiCo apparently belie at least a small concession from manufacturers and the knowledge that balancing taste preferences with health concerns it’s bound to be a constant struggle. Whatever the outcome of this sizzling debate, it serves as an unwelcome reminder that even the smallest sweets can leave a rather bitter aftertaste.

Anyway, all of this is to say that if you really like Diet Coke, you might want to grab yourself a few cans while still, well, you can… Or maybe the prospect of aspartame causing cancer might be enough to make you quit for good . Cheers to that.

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