Drinks that claim to be “sugar-free” or “zero sugar” taste sweet because they contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Since the 1980s, aspartame has been widely used in various foods, beverages and daily necessities, such as sugar-free drinks, chewing gum, ice cream, dairy products, cereals, toothpaste, cough drops and chewable vitamin tablets. Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, officially released a report classifying aspartame as a “Category 2B possible carcinogen.” This news has triggered many questions, such as “Can I still drink sugar-free Coke?” “Can I still eat sugar-free gum?” but many industry experts said “don’t be too nervous.”
Is aspartame really “carcinogenic”?
On July 14, the World Health Organization issued an announcement stating that based on “limited evidence” that aspartame is carcinogenic to humans, IARC classified it as a “category 2B possible carcinogen” with a daily allowable intake of 1 kilogram of body weight. 40 mg.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees with IARC’s conclusion and believes that aspartame is one of the most well-researched food additives in the food science community and will not cause health problems when used within safe doses. In addition to the United States, China, the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and other countries and regions allow producers to legally use aspartame. On the night of July 14, China’s National Food Safety Risk Assessment Center and National Cancer Center issued a statement stating that China has strictly regulated the scope and maximum usage of aspartame through national food safety standards, and that it is used in accordance with current standards. Safety can be ensured.
At the same time, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) under the World Health Organization also issued a report stating that aspartame will quickly decompose into two amino acids and methanol after entering the human body, and these three substances will not be digested during normal food digestion. will also occur during the process. In addition, aspartame does not enter the body’s metabolic cycle. Therefore, JECFA believes that “aspartame is safe and reliable, and there is no need to adjust the current safe dosage standards.”
If the IARC “daily allowance is 40 mg per kilogram of body weight” standard, the upper limit of aspartame intake for an adult weighing 70 kg is 2800 mg per day. Generally, the aspartame content in a can of “zero sugar” beverage is about 200 to 300 mg. To achieve the intake of 2,800 mg, you need to drink about 9 to 14 cans a day. In other words, there are indeed health risks from consuming foods containing aspartame, but the probability of causing health problems is very low.
Since the health risks are lower, why don’t some drinks use aspartame? In fact, in addition to taste issues, producers also take into account the needs of special groups, such as patients with phenylketonuria. Phenylketonuria is a rare, inherited metabolic disease that affects one in every 15,000 births. Due to the inability to metabolize phenylalanine in protein, patients with phenylketonuria need to rely on special formula foods for life, and aspartame may cause metabolic disorders, so it is not suitable for such patients.
In fact, as a sugar substitute product, the real risk of aspartame is not that it is carcinogenic. Scientific research has found that continued intake of too much aspartame may lead to insulin resistance and eventually the development of various metabolic diseases. China is the country with the largest total number of diabetic patients and the largest annual increase in the number of people with diabetes, and there are also a large number of potential high-risk groups for diabetes. These people seek out sugar-substitute foods and drinks to control blood sugar levels, and this behavior may cause them to develop insulin resistance and exacerbate metabolic disorders.
According to the National Food Safety Survey Report, only 44.37% of consumers check package labels and instructions before purchasing food, but do not read them carefully. This means that many people at high risk for prediabetes do not know how much sugar substitutes they consume every day. Therefore, developing the habit of checking labels and learning to read nutrition labels is a consumer literacy that every adult should possess.
In fact, they are all “carcinogens”
What does it mean for aspartame to be identified as a “Group 2B possible carcinogen”? In order to clarify this issue, it is necessary to first understand IARC’s “Carcinogen List”.
The “Carcinogen List” is the IARC’s way of classifying carcinogens. The list is not limited to substances, but also includes factors such as behavior and environment. IARC’s classification of carcinogens is based on the degree of conclusive evidence that they cause cancer. According to the IARC carcinogen classification, Category 1 is a clear human carcinogen, and 120 species have been identified so far; Category 2 is a substance that is carcinogenic to animals, but whether it is carcinogenic to humans requires further study, and 357 species have been identified; 3 Category 4 refers to substances that are not sure whether they can cause cancer in humans but have the potential to cause cancer. Currently, 502 substances have been identified; Category 4 refers to substances that are unlikely to cause cancer in humans.
Group 1 carcinogens are of greatest concern because there is good evidence that they can cause cancer in humans. These substances include aflatoxins, benzopyrene, cigarettes, betel nut, arsenic, cadmium, benzene, methanol, radon, coal tar, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, dioxins, alcohol, alcoholic beverages, Chinese salted fish, sawdust, etc. In addition, solar radiation, indoor coal burning, and the rubber industry are also classified as Class 1 carcinogens.
Class 2 carcinogens are divided into Class 2A and Class 2B. Category 2A refers to substances that have been determined to have carcinogenic risks to humans, such as certain pesticides, hot water above 65°C, aniline compounds, dyes, etc. Category 2B carcinogens are substances that may have potential carcinogenic risks to humans, but the evidence is limited and further research is needed. Many Class 2 carcinogens are closely related to our daily lives. Substances such as acrylamide (commonly found in potato chips), lead, 4-methylimidazole (commonly found in cola), coffee, gasoline, etc. are all Class 2 carcinogens.
Category 3 carcinogens have the largest variety, and there are three situations that can be classified into this category: the first situation is that the evidence of carcinogens is insufficient for both humans and animals; the second situation is that the evidence of carcinogens for humans is insufficient, However, there is sufficient evidence that it is carcinogenic to animals, and there is sufficient evidence that its mechanism of action in animals is not effective in humans; the third case is for individual unclassified substances that require further research to determine their carcinogenicity. Mercury, Sudan Red, Melamine, Sulfur Dioxide, Hydrogen Peroxide (Hydrogen Peroxide), Hypochlorous Acid, Printing Ink, Ampicillin (a commonly used antibiotic), Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Glass Fiber, Dioxide Trioxide Iron (rust), caffeine, cholesterol, static magnetic fields, tannic acid (common in wine), tea, vitamin K, etc. are all type 3 carcinogens.
IARC’s carcinogen classification is based on the conclusive degree of evidence of carcinogenesis and is not necessarily related to the risk of cancer or the actual threat to humans. The highest level of Class 1 carcinogen means that the evidence of causing cancer is very strong, rather than that it has the highest risk of cancer.
A well-known brand of milk once attracted widespread attention due to the detection of aflatoxin, which is classified as a category 1 carcinogen. However, ultraviolet rays in sunlight are also Class 1 carcinogens, but sunlight, air and water are regarded by us as the “three essential elements for a healthy life.” Both aflatoxins and UV rays are classified as Group 1 carcinogens because there is sufficient scientific evidence to prove their carcinogenicity.
Like aspartame, titanium dioxide is classified as a Group 2B carcinogen. It is mainly used to “whiten” products or make the color lighter or softer. Titanium dioxide is contained in foods such as Skittles, chewing gum, cakes, and broth products, as well as whitening, concealer, and sunscreen products. It can be seen that substances classified as category 2B carcinogens do not necessarily have to disappear completely from food and daily necessities, but should be used within the scope of standards.
Many times, we pay too much attention to Class 2 and Class 3 carcinogens for which the evidence is not conclusive, such as Sudan red, acrylamide, and aspartame, but ignore Class 1 carcinogens that are very common in life, such as cigarettes and alcohol. In fact, these Class 1 carcinogens, which are more harmful to the human body, are more worthy of careful treatment and active prevention.
Dose determines toxicity
Obviously, people don’t stop sunbathing or drinking coffee just because solar radiation and coffee are classified as Category 1 and Category 2 carcinogens respectively. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that many people are still concerned about food additives classified as carcinogens. Will long-term intake of large amounts of certain food additives have any impact on health?
Paracelsus, one of the pioneers of modern science and the father of toxicology, once said: “As long as the dose is sufficient, everything is poisonous.” “Dose” includes two aspects: one is the amount of exposure, and the other is the time of exposure. The greater the exposure and the longer the exposure time, the higher the probability of developing cancer, but it is not certain that you will develop cancer. When describing the concepts of “large amounts” and “long term”, scientists will be more rigorous and consider more factors, such as population characteristics (adults, children, women, etc.), length and frequency of intake (daily for life, one week, single times of intake, etc.), route of intake (ingestion, inhalation, skin contact, etc.), intake (related to body weight), health effects, etc. Such a description considers factors in more detail and allows for a more accurate assessment of risk. However, for ordinary people, we can understand “a large amount” as “taking food additives as a staple food”, while “long-term” is based on “lifetime” and “every day”, and the length of time and frequency of intake are far different. Beyond the standards of normal life.
In recent years, we have been exposed to many substances known as “carcinogens” in our daily consumption, such as melamine in eggs, Sudan red in duck eggs, acrylamide in potato chips, benzopyrene in edible oil, and nutritious noodles nitrite in cola, 4-methylimidazole in cola, etc. However, people often only remember the names of these foods and chemicals, and ignore the following information: eating 114 eggs containing melamine every day may have an impact on health; eating 1,000 duck eggs containing Sudan red every day may cause Cancer; eating 150 bags of potato chips per day increases the risk of cancer due to acrylamide. Although these substances may pose a certain risk of cancer, the amounts we are exposed to in a normal daily diet are usually far below the carcinogenic dose. Therefore, we don’t need to worry too much. As long as we maintain a reasonable diet and living habits, we can effectively reduce the potential impact of carcinogens on health.
Why are most consumers often worried about certain harmful substances and tend to ignore the dosage issue? This is mainly because the public has some misunderstandings in risk perception. Many consumers believe that all food and drinks they eat should be absolutely safe. In fact, “zero tolerance” for food safety refers to zero tolerance for illegal additions, adulteration with fake products, etc. It does not mean that food safety can achieve “zero risk.” Therefore, “detected” does not mean “violation”; “contains” does not mean “exceeding the standard”; risk ≠ hazard + consequence, risk = hazard + dose. In real life, what is really feasible is to control the risk within an acceptable range, rather than requiring food to be “zero risk”.
A healthy lifestyle is more important
In order to reduce the intake of pesticide residues and carcinogens, many people favor organic food, believing that organic food is the safest and healthiest choice.
According to the annual Global Food Security Index Report published by The Economist magazine, Denmark consistently ranks at the top of the food security index rankings. This is due to Denmark having a complete set of strict food safety assurance systems and a complete and effective food safety supervision system. In Denmark, organic food consumers account for 7.8% of the total population, and the production process of organic food does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides at all. In addition, the pesticide spraying of other non-organic fruits and vegetables is also subject to strict regulations and restrictions. The Danish Ministry of Agriculture conducts regular spot checks every year. If pesticide or fertilizer residues are found to exceed standards, farmers will be deprived of their production rights.
Although Denmark is known as the “organic nation”, it seems incomprehensible that its cancer detection rate is also among the highest in the world. According to data from the World Cancer Research Fund, lifestyle is an important factor in the development of cancer in Denmark. In Denmark, the proportion of female smokers is higher than the global average, and consumption of alcoholic beverages is also high. Both smoking and drinking significantly increase the risk of cancer. The “Danish phenomenon” shows that lifestyle choices are more important than problems such as excessive levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticide residues.
In addition to material life, mental state can also have a profound impact on health. There is a middle-aged man in his 40s who pays great attention to health care and never cares about what water to drink and what vegetables to eat. His relatives and friends regard him as a “health master”. However, he suffered from cancer in his prime and eventually passed away. My friends couldn’t understand, how could such a “fastidious” person die so young? In fact, this question is not difficult to answer. Although this man pays attention to health preservation, his original intention of health preservation is wrong. For example, if he didn’t wash his hands occasionally, he would feel bacteria getting into his skin. If he ate non-organic vegetables once, he would worry about pesticides seeping into his bloodstream… He maintained his health based on fear. Just imagine, if a person is always in a state of “nervous tension”, his body and mind will be rigid and deformed. Even if he drinks mountain spring water and eats organic vegetables, it will be difficult to live a long and healthy life.
The famous conductor Zheng Xiaoying and the performing artist Tao Yuling both suffered from cancer three times. However, they are positive, optimistic, cheerful and open-minded, and even persist in working. Now in their eighties and nineties, they are still in good spirits. The World Health Organization has also published statistics: more than 90% of diseases in the world are related to emotions. It can be seen that a good attitude is also a good medicine for preventing cancer.