The food and beverage industries are in the unenviable position of scrambling to respond effectively to the apparent leak of the World Health Organization’s stance on aspartame.
Citing unnamed sources, Reuters yesterday (29 June) reported the WHO’s sub-agency for cancer research (IARC) intends to classify aspartame as a possible carcinogen – the same definition it applies to aloe vera and pickled vegetables.
It follows news the WHO was planning to release two reports assessing the safety aspartame next month. The reports are being prepared by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives respectively, according to Bloomberg.
With the exact details of what “possibly” means, in this case, remaining unclear (and possibly quite wide-ranging from quite significant to infinitesimally small), real-world impacts as consumers respond to the headlines are likely to begin immediately – and will be difficult to predict accurately.
One obvious take-out is that the initial reporting is a headache for The Coca-Cola Co. Sections of the mainstream media have latched onto Diet Coke as an example of a popular soft drink using aspartame and splashed the name across many headlines.
This is undoubtedly for dramatic value but easily gives off the “Diet Coke causes cancer” message to the passing reader, with the obvious risk of knee-jerk responses. It is fair to say Diet Coke sales data and social media discourse will be heavily scrutinised to see if there is a direct negative impact in the near term. This will also be true, possibly to a lesser extent, for other “zero sugar” type products from Coke and other manufacturers, as consumers look at ingredient lists for aspartame.
Aspartame is a widely used ingredient with a good level of consumer awareness of its purpose and presence. It is also one that, recently, has been trending slowly upward in terms of positive consumer perceptions of its healthiness.
A Q1 2023 global consumer survey by GlobalData – Just Drinks’ parent – reported that 22% of respondents viewed aspartame as having a positive health impact, 21% negative, and 29% neutral. That compares to 16% positive in Q2 2021, with 25% negative and 24% neutral.
There is now a real risk that positive assessment may slide back, creating challenges for industries such as soft drinks that have placed so much store in elevating their zero sugar/healthier credentials in recent years in the face of medical criticism and anti-sugar taxation. Also, the headlines could indeed lead to some consumers opting to eschew low/no sugar variants and go for full sugar, with the associated, likely more impactful health risks of obesity, diabetes, and so on.
The reporting needs context (and often does provide it, after a few column inches); The IARC, WHO’s cancer-focused body, even with a classification of aspartame as a possible carcinogen, is only putting the product in the same basket as many other common products across food, drink, personal care, through to fuels and other petrochemicals.
These include ingredients and products such as aloe vera, talc, Asian pickled vegetables, and diesel. The IARC’s classifications have been criticised before for being alarmist, such as the furor when red meat was classified as carcinogenic. But as is always the case, while industry users of aspartame may rightly counter with their own research findings and highlight how minimal any risk is, such a public display is likely to play on consumers’ tendencies for risk aversion and questioning of how much brands’ health claims can be trusted.