A B.C. scientist says a new assessment of a common artificial sweetener should not be making people change their behaviour.
Assessments released July 14 classified aspartame, widely used in food and beverage products, as a possible carcinogen.
But the release did not provide any new information that would require people to change their daily intake, said Professor Scott Lear in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
“It’s confusing and it’s not really a helpful public health message because basically, unless you’re having like the equivalent of 30-plus cans of diet pop, nobody’s really going to be impacted by that report… basically the report means people don’t have to change what they’re doing.”
The assessments were conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives. However, the classification was based on limited evidence, according to IARC.
“The assessments of aspartame have indicated that, while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO.
According to Lear, choosing aspartame products might still be a better long-term choice compared to products with added sugars they usually replace.
“It seems like their main purpose for releasing the report might be to stimulate more research in the area to look at if aspartame is really associated with increased risk or chances of getting cancer. But there’s been a lot of misinterpretation or especially on social media about headlines like aspartame causes cancer and things like that. That’s not what the report is saying.”
To address concerns about aspartame and offer general dietary recommendations, Lear suggested minimizing ultra-processed foods, choosing foods in their natural state, and including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, healthy oils, and dairy in the diet.
Regarding the business aspect, the announcement may add more pressure to the already struggling soft drink market, according to Professor Lindsay Meredith of Marketing at SFU. Negative attribution can impact sales due to consumer risk aversion, regardless of the truth behind the claims.
According to Meredith, the soft drink market, which heavily relied on aspartame, has already been facing challenges due to fragmentation and the emergence of various fruit juice and specialty drink options.
“This kind of extra news, whether it’s true or not, is certainly not very helpful either.”
“Not all consumers are going to necessarily listen to or have even heard of this new information from the WHO,” said Professor Aviva Philipp-Muller in Marketing at the Beedie School of Business at SFU. Some consumers are really informed about scientific information and listen to scientific information, and other consumers are just very unaware of new scientific information or even resistant to scientific information.
“So this new determination from the WHO isn’t going to affect all consumers equally. You might get some consumers boycotting but certainly not all consumers.”
The ongoing trend towards healthier alternatives in the beverage industry might continue, independent of the aspartame discussion. Businesses may need to reformulate their products based on future research findings, but the decision would depend on reputable organizations like the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or leading medical journals to support their decisions, Meredith said.
For businesses aiming to communicate effectively with health-conscious consumers, Philipp-Muller suggested highlighting the health value of their products in labeling. However, it may be challenging for packaged goods companies selling products with aspartame if there is a strong anti-aspartame sentiment among consumers.
If businesses have products with high health value that health-conscious consumers might be interested in, it might be a good time to highlight those products and their healthiness in their communication. However, convincing anti-aspartame consumers to consume products containing aspartame may be challenging, Philipp-Muller added.
It is also too early to determine how consumer perception or demand for products containing aspartame might change, Philipp-Muller said. Businesses should be mindful of consumer response and consider strategic planning based on consumer demand for products with aspartame.
“It’s a little too early (to make conclusive judgments). But I still would not want to be those people who come out and say ‘we’re worried about carcinogens in soft drinks’. That product category is already under stress already under pressure. They sure does not help them any anymore,” Meredith said.