Health,  Life

Aspartame Cancer Controversy: Is It Safe to Drink Diet Soda?

A cancer-causing scandal pushed the sweetener aspartame to the forefront.
On June 29, the topic of “aspartame causes cancer” became a hot topic on Weibo. The cause of the incident came from a report by Reuters, which quoted two sources familiar with the matter as saying that aspartame may be identified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) under the WHO next month.
Then the domestic media quoted the report of Reuters, which caused an uproar. The reason why it received so much attention was that aspartame, as a non-carbohydrate artificial sweetener, was widely used in the Internet due to its high sweetness and low calories. Thousands of processed foods, such as beverages, milk powder, candy, etc. Statistics show that aspartame sells as much as $1 billion a year.
If aspartame is really carcinogenic, it means that the sugar-free versions of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta that are popular in the market today will all have the risk of carcinogenicity.
After the news was announced, netizens were arguing, and some people shouted, “What if I still have two boxes of sugar-free Coke at home?” “I drink sugar-free to lose weight, but you are killing me.” I don’t buy anything with spartame.” There are also optimists who say, “Hurry up and drink, this month will not cause cancer.” “Life is only a few dozen years, and a sweet bite is a bite.” “You may cause cancer while alive, so you should eat and drink.” “Don’t be afraid , Alcohol is a first-class carcinogen, and everyone still drinks it happily.”
Just when people were panicking, the cancer-causing puzzle of aspartame ushered in a reversal. After the news broke, the International Beverage Association Committee subsequently stated on its official website that the view that aspartame is a carcinogen contradicts decades of high-quality scientific evidence, “We are, as always, convinced that aspartame is safe. ”
This point of view was also quoted by Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola, which introduced aspartame into the sugar-free cola track for the first time, said that Coca-Cola will not make a statement on this matter for the time being. But at the same time, the person in charge cited the above-mentioned report, intending to express confidence in his own products.
The reason for the show of confidence has to do with Diet Coca-Cola’s stellar performance. Coca-Cola’s annual report shows that in 2022, the sugar-free cola category will perform outstandingly, with an annual growth of 11%. According to data from Meituan, the takeaway sales of sugar-free Coca-Cola increased by 132% year-on-year, much higher than the average growth rate of 28% for Coca-Cola products on the platform.

However, the confidence of Coca-Cola alone is not enough to calm the market. Less than two days after the matter fermented, many brands had already stepped forward to cut seats with aspartame, and a “dark war” among beverage companies started in this dispute.
Yuanqi Forest quickly announced to the outside world that “Yuanqi Forest Cola has 0 sugar, 0 fat, 0 calories and 0 aspartame, and the whole line of products does not contain aspartame”, adding firewood to the intensified ingredient controversy.
It is worth noting that Yuanqi Forest has been trying to reach the hinterland of Coca-Cola. Last summer, Yuanqi Forest launched its first sugar-free cola, which replaced aspartame with erythritol in the sugar substitute. This year, Yuanqi Forest has stepped up its efforts in the layout of Coca-Cola. A few months ago, several major domestic Cokes were gathered together to try to fight against Coca-Cola.
In addition, Nayuki’s tea also stated that since the end of last year, Nayuki’s tea has announced that all products use the upgraded natural sugar substitute “Luohan fructose”; the convenience store brand today also announced that in line with the attitude of being responsible to consumers, it will release Shelves of nine aspartame-containing products, including Coca-Cola Zero.
Some people in the industry said that if aspartame is really to be judged as a carcinogen, it may change the market structure of beverage companies. However, there are also many people in the industry who believe that “it is hooliganism to talk about carcinogenesis regardless of the dose.”

Don’t Discuss Toxicity Regardless of Dosage
The wide application of aspartame in the food processing industry is a microcosm of the long “war against sugar” of mankind.
Over the past few years, the mass production and processing of sucrose has allowed people to indulge in the taste stimulation brought by sucrose for a long time. Taking a bite of sweets, under the action of taste buds, can secrete dopamine, which makes people feel happy. However, with people’s excessive consumption of sugar, it has also brought about health problems such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases and obesity. People have to face up to the harm brought by sugar, and thus launched a vigorous “anti-sugar campaign”.
“Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine, and 5 times more likely to cause death, but sugar is legal, so you can add it as you please.” In the movie “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”, there is such a a line.

In 2009, Professor Robert Lustig delivered the famous speech “Sugar: The Cruel Truth”, which was regarded as the first shot of the “anti-sugar movement”. Subsequently, the United Kingdom, France and many other countries also opened a “sugar tax” to reduce national sugar intake. At the same time, artificial sweeteners represented by aspartame and acesulfame-K became popular in food and beverages.

In the food and beverage industry, aspartame also has a well-known name-“sweet trap”. “Sweetness” is its high sweetness and pure sweetness. Under the same dosage, the sweetness of aspartame is 200 times that of sucrose; “trap” is because many studies in recent years have shown that aspartame After the sweet enters the human body, it will be decomposed into various substances. If aspartame is consumed in excess, it will cause damage to the brain, nerves, and kidneys of the human body, and may cause premature birth of the baby.

In fact, aspartame has been controversial ever since it was identified as a food additive. For this reason, the World Health Organization Additives Committee also had to come out and say that aspartame is safe to consume within acceptable daily limits. For example, a 60kg adult would only be at risk if they drank 12-36 cans of diet soda per day (depending on the amount of aspartame in the drink).
“Unhealthy” and “carcinogenic” are obviously two orders of magnitude. So, does aspartame, which is standing in the public opinion storm this time, actually cause cancer?
“Whether ‘aspartame causes cancer’ today or ‘additives cause cancer’ in the past, it is more of a conclusion at the laboratory level.” Liu Shaowei, a doctor of food safety and a member of the expert group of the Shanghai Food Safety Research Association, told “Shijie” , At present, there are various opinions on the market, but neither can be 100% proven to be true, nor can it be 100% falsified.
In view of the principle of “one cannot talk about toxicity regardless of dose”, Liu Shaowei believes that the discussion of whether aspartame is carcinogenic should not stay at the technical level, and the issue of dosage should be considered.
Food science blogger Qian Cheng expressed similar views on “shijie”. “At present, it is not even clear which carcinogen grade aspartame is classified into. Let the bullets fly for a while.”
According to Qian Cheng, the IARC in this news event is the International Cancer Research Center under the WHO. “Contrary to what many people imagine, IARC’s job is mainly to collect literature and data, based on which it judges ‘how strong is the evidence that something causes cancer’.” In other words, IARC is only responsible for drawing conclusions based on existing data, but not Go out and do the experiment yourself.
“According to IARC’s previous standards: level 1 means that the evidence is quite conclusive, and the hammer is carcinogenic; level 2A means that there is some evidence but not very conclusive; level 2B means that there is evidence but the strength of the evidence is weak; level 3 means there is little evidence.” Qian Cheng told “City Boundary”, for ordinary consumers, it is better to wait until IARC gives the final rating before responding in a targeted manner.
Qian Cheng suggested that if aspartame is classified as grade 1, then try to avoid intake; if it is classified as grade 2A, limit intake, but it is not “cannot eat at all”; if it is classified as grade 2B Even level 3, it shows that aspartame has insufficient evidence of carcinogenicity, so there is no need to panic.
According to Reuters, aspartame may be classified as a 2A or 2B “probably carcinogenic” category. IARC has previously classified overnight work, red meat consumption, and mobile phone radiation into these two categories, similar to aspartame.

A nutrition expert’s point of view is more direct. In the past, the primary carcinogens assessed by IARC included: alcohol, betel nut, processed meat (sausage ham, bacon, cured meat), etc., so even if aspartame is identified as 2A or 2B Level carcinogens are actually not that scary.

Should erythritol be “full”?

Aspartame stands on the cusp, and the direct beneficiaries are competitors. Some netizens laughed and said: “The price of erythritol will probably increase in the future.”
Whether or not to raise prices is another matter, the capital market has already been the first to hear the news.
On June 30, the second day after the entry “Aspartame causes cancer” rushed to the top of the hot search list, Sanyuan Bio, Baolingbao, which sells erythritol, and Gold, which produces acesulfame-K and sucralose, He Industrial and Huakang shares, which are mainly engaged in functional sugar alcohols, rose sharply at the opening. Among them, the two main players of erythritol, Sanyuan Bio and Baolingbao, had the highest gains. The former closed at 34.99 yuan per share, an increase of 9.86%, and the latter closed at 9.39 yuan per share, an increase of 9.95%.
Aspartame “falls down” and erythritol “eats up”, behind it is the struggle between sugar substitute players in the past decades.
Vertically, in the past 140 years of development history, sugar substitutes have experienced changes from saccharin (the first generation of artificial sugar substitutes) to neotame (the sixth generation of artificial sugar substitutes), and from artificially synthesized sugar substitutes to natural The transformation of sugar substitutes. However, the industry is accustomed to dividing the war on sugar substitutes into two halves.
The key word in the first half was “artificial sugar substitute”. In order to meet the anti-sugar demand of consumers at that time, Coca-Cola developed a low-calorie “Diet Coke” in 1982, and used aspartame for the first time in this category. Statistics show that in 1984, when Diet Coke was popular, Americans consumed more than 7 million pounds of aspartame, equivalent to 1.4 billion pounds of sugar.
Immediately afterwards, acesulfame K, which is also a synthetic sugar substitute, gradually stood together with aspartame, and appeared together in Coca-Cola’s fellow products and in the ingredient list of competing products. Products such as Coca-Cola Fiber+, Fanta Zero, Pepsi Zero, and Pepsi Diet all contain aspartame and acesulfame K.

The “sugar-free” trend brought by Coca-Cola also fed the raw material manufacturers behind it. Newt Corporation in the United States, Ajinomoto Corporation in Japan, and Jinhe Industry in China have all made a lot of real money. After that, it is the story of the influx of players, the balance of supply and demand being broken, and the stories of giants trying to survive.
Take Jinhe Industry as an example. Facing the situation of oversupply, Jinhe Industrial mainly fights a “injury to the enemy by one thousand, and self-injury by 800”, using price wars to drag down the opponent. The final result is that Jinhe Industry has become the industry leader, but it also has to face the situation of narrowing profit margins and continuous decline in gross profit margins.
At the same time, natural sugar substitutes represented by erythritol gradually gained popularity, dragging the sugar substitute battle into the second half.
What I have to mention here is Yuanqi Forest. In 2019, with the birth of Yuanqi Forest’s “bubbly water”, erythritol was pushed to the public and became popular. Since then, the concept of “0 sugar, 0 fat, 0 calories” has become popular in the food and beverage industry, and the demand for erythritol has increased.

In this context, according to Sullivan’s research data, from 2016 to 2020, the consumption of erythritol in China has experienced a sharp increase, from about 2,500 tons in 2016 to about 41,000 tons in 2020. In 2020, the market value of Baolingbao, known as the “erythritol concept stock”, exceeded 20 billion yuan for the first time, and its stock price almost doubled. The stock price of erythritol manufacturer Sanyuan Biotech soared by nearly 6 in the first half of the year before it was delisted from the New Third Board. times.

The popularity of the raw material concept feeds back to the brand. According to the “White Paper on Healthy China Beverage and Food Sugar Reduction Action (2021)”, major companies that use erythritol, such as Yuanqi Forest, will see a revenue growth rate of 309% in 2020.
What does it mean that the battle for sugar substitutes has shifted from the first half to the second half? Are natural sugar substitutes better than artificial sugar substitutes? The answer is obviously no.

Qian Cheng told “Shijie” that from a health perspective, there is no distinction between natural sugar substitutes and artificial sugar substitutes, and there is some controversy over the overall health of sugar substitutes including natural sugar substitutes. Liu Shaowei also told “City Boundary” that the introduction of natural sugar substitutes represented by erythritol to the stage is more the result of educating consumers from the upstream and downstream of the industrial chain.

Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages, the current popularity of erythritol is more like the result of multiple parties colluding. Emerging brands intend to find an entry point surrounded by giants, and raw material manufacturers are looking for new growth points under extreme introversion. The two sides work together to bring more and more names of sugar substitutes to consumers: erythritol, Luo Han fructose, allulose, etc., to name a few.

Does this hot search incident mean the end of aspartame? Liu Shaowei told “City Boundary” that the answer is no. “Public opinion will not change the trend of the sugar substitute industry itself. The current trend is that synthetic sugar substitutes are being replaced by natural sugar substitutes, but due to cost and other factors, it is impossible to completely replace them.”

From the current point of view, erythritol, which was taken off by Yuanqi Forest, has fallen into a cycle of involution, overcapacity, and falling gross profit margins just like aspartame/acesulfame back then. The gross profit margin of Sanyuan Bio has dropped from more than 40% two years ago to 14.06% today, and the performance of Baolingbao has also been affected by the drop in the price of erythritol.

At the same time, many raw material manufacturers turned their attention to allulose, known as “the next erythritol”. Not long ago, Sanyuan Bio said that the project with an annual output of 20,000 tons of allulose has been partially put into trial production. Baolingbao also stated on the investor interaction platform that it currently has a production capacity of 7,000 tons/year of allulose crystals.

In general, from the rise of acesulfame K, aspartame to natural sweeteners erythritol, allulose, etc., the wave of people chasing “sweetness” has never stopped, but behind the iteration of old and new sweeteners is actually It is all a game of interests, and it is also related to the rise and fall of enterprise development.

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