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[FOOD] Sweet Debate Surrounding the Sugar Substitute: Aspartame

No.166 / Oct 16, 2023

Alternative sweeteners are used as substitutes for sugar. One of these is aspartame, an artificial sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has no bitter taste. Although aspartame and sugar release 4kcal of the same energy when digested, aspartame is so sweet, even in small amounts that the calories from it are negligible compared to sugar. Therefore, it is widely used in more than 120 countries around the world as an alternative to sugar in low-calorie foods and drinks.

Recently, however, a dispute arose between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) over aspartame. The FDA manages the authorization, quality, and stability of food, medicines, and cosmetics in the United States (U.S.). The WHO is a specialized United Nations organization that promotes international cooperation to improve health. The dispute between the two is drawing global attention, because both institutions have food health authorities. Since the 70s, the FDA has maintained that aspartame has no safety issues. The FDA approved aspartame for use in food in 1974. Since then, aspartame has maintained its position as an alternative sweetener in many parts of the world. However, on July 14, 2023, the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC) under the WHO classified aspartame as “Group 2B,” meaning potentially carcinogenic substances, and the debate over aspartame began. The IARC classifies carcinogens into Group 1 (definite carcinogen), Group 2A (projectable carcinogen), Group 2B (probable carcinogen), and Group 3 (nonclassifiable) according to the risk of carcinogenesis. For Group 2B there is not enough evidence that a substance causes cancer, but it contains substances and actions that are considered carcinogenic. This group includes exhaust gas, gasoline, magnetic fields, and pickled vegetables. The WHO has pointed out concerns over the excessive intake of aspartame because it is present in various foods. Immediately after the WHO report was released on the 14th, an FDA spokesman said, “Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply,” adding, “FDA scientists do not see safety issues when aspartame is used under approved conditions.” The FDA has cited the fact that aspartame has been approved in many countries as another basis for refutation. Health Canada (Canada’s Health Ministry) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have also assessed the safety of aspartame, concluding that it is safe at the level of use currently allowed. The controversy between the FDA and WHO over aspartame is still ongoing.

What, then, is the impact of the FDA and WHO debate over aspartame in Korea? Even if the WHO designates aspartame as Group 2B, its use would not immediately be banned in Korea. After the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) conducted a risk assessment to investigate people’s intake, a separate safety management plan would be prepared. Additionally, the controversy in the domestic market is limited to a specific artificial sweetener, aspartame. This is interpreted as meaning that the consumer demand for zero calories exceeds the possible risk of carcinogenesis of sweeteners. However, as there has been no research on alternative sweeteners that are completely harmless, consumers should be wary of alternative sweeteners.


By Min Ji-su, AG Cub Reporter

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