WHO Prepares a Cancer Warning for Aspartame

Danger on the StairsIARC, the agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) responsible for research on causes of cancer, is preparing to issue a determination that aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” It will have lots of company on their lists of definite, probable, or possible carcinogens. Cell phones, sunlight, red meat, and hot dogs all enjoy this status. Even that apple pie you might have enjoyed yesterday with your hot dogs on the Fourth of July contains substances (e.g. formaldehyde and acrylamide) the IARC says are definitely or probably carcinogenic.

Fuel for the Fire

Given that the WHO recently said that non-caloric sweeteners have “deadly long-term consequences,” this fits right in. It offers more fuel for the fire to people who deeply believe that such sweeteners are a threat. Through repetitive publications that are more advertising than investigation, they build a bias of familiarity for believing that these sweeteners pose an imminent threat to health.

Risk and Safety Assessment

What is absent from the IARC process is any assessment of risk and safety. Dose makes the poison. Sunlight is good for us – until we get too much of it. But the IARC classifications leave these kinds of considerations out, as Ed Yong explained a few years ago in The Atlantic:

“These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.

“Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.”

Danger All Around

This leaves us with a pervasive sense of envelopment in danger. In particular, pervasive messaging that much of the food you consume is harming you is profoundly unhelpful if the goal is to help people make better choices and find healthier patterns for eating. It’s quite natural to conclude that everything is bad, so why worry about any of it?

This is the problem with appeals to fear. Gerjo Kok and colleagues explain in Health Psychology Review that the response to warnings which elicit fear depends upon what a person believes they can do about the danger. With confidence they can do something, they might take action. Make sustainable changes in their diet, for example. But if avoiding the danger seems difficult or impossible, they are more likely to react defensively – to dismiss or deny the concern.

Hype and Credibility

Research and regulatory bodies concerned with the safety of aspartame tell us it is safe within reasonable limits for human consumption.

Simultaneously hyping the danger of sugar and alternative sweeteners is a classic mistake of offering more problems than solutions. A cancer warning from WHO about aspartame will not help the situation. It will mostly serve to dent the credibility of WHO.

Click here and here for more about this coming determination. For more about problems with appealing to fear, click here.

Danger on the Stairs, painting by Pierre Roy / WikiArt

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July 5, 2023