With a forthcoming report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) expected this week, one topic of notable buzz is the risk aspartame poses in the development of the disease.

Dr. David Ma
Dr. David Ma

The IARC report could determine aspartame a carcinogen – a cancer-causing agent. However, U of G nutrition expert Dr. David Ma says there is no need to sound the alarm just yet.

“The IARC report will likely say that artificial sweeteners, based on limited evidence, pose a potential hazard that warrants some awareness,” says Ma.

“However, the degree of cancer risk is small.”

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, 200 times sweeter than sugar, and the most commonly used substitute found in drinks, sauces, breakfast cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, ice cream and other snacks.

First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1974, aspartame was approved by Health Canada for use in food items in 1981.

Recently, the sweetener has been reevaluated by two World Health Organization agencies, including IARC.

Aspartame a hazard just like any other, says U of G expert

Ma is a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences and director of the Guelph Family Health Study. He researches the links between nutrition and cancer and says consuming aspartame through the occasional can of diet soda is no more dangerous than any other hazard and advises consumers to take precautions accordingly.

“To use a daily analogy, driving is a hazard, but the degree of risk is small because we take appropriate precautions like using seat belts and not driving dangerously at high speeds,” explains Ma.

He cautions that each artificial sweetener is different from the next and research on the short- and long-term effects they have on humans is ongoing. For this reason, he does not recommend young children consume them.

Health Canada states that a safe daily intake of aspartame is no more than 40 mg per kg of body weight. “So, there is only concern if someone who is about 70 kg is drinking more than 20 cans of diet soda per day,” Ma says.

“This is perhaps a good reminder to think about what we should do, which is to think about the whole diet, eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, all in moderation and hopefully in good company,” Ma says. “We should enjoy eating above all else.”

Ma recently discussed the topic with the Toronto Star. He is available for interviews.


Dr. David Ma