The World Health Organization (WHO) is suggesting - with some internal dissent - that aspartame, which is found in scores of diet drinks and foods, could be a carcinogen. At the same time, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an unusual criticism of the WHO's statement.
Here's how the New York Times framed the story:
"A World Health Organization agency declared on Thursday that aspartame, an artificial sweetener widely used in diet drinks and low-sugar foods, could possibly cause cancer.
"A second W.H.O. committee, though, held steady on its assessment of a safe level of aspartame consumption. By some calculations using the panel’s standard, a person weighing 150 pounds could avoid a risk of cancer but still drink about a dozen cans of diet soda a day.
"The declaration by a W.H.O. agency of a cancer risk associated with aspartame reflects the first time the prominent international body has weighed in publicly on the effects of the nearly ubiquitous artificial sweetener. Aspartame has been a contentious ingredient for decades.
"The International Agency for Research on Cancer, or I.A.R.C., said it based its conclusion that aspartame was a possible carcinogen on limited evidence from three observational studies of humans that the agency said linked consumption of artificially sweetened beverages to an increase in cases of liver cancer - at levels far below a dozen cans a day. It cautioned that the results could potentially be skewed toward the profile of people who drink higher amounts of diet drinks and called for further study."
The Times points out that "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved aspartame decades ago, on Thursday issued an unusual criticism of the global agency’s findings and reiterated its longstanding position that the sweetener is safe. In a statement, the F.D.A. said it 'disagrees with I.A.R.C.’s conclusion that these studies support classifying aspartame as a possible carcinogen to humans.'
"The F.D.A. also said that 'aspartame being labeled by the W.H.O. as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer'."
- KC's View:
The FDA is right - there is a big difference between "actually" and "possibly."
I think two things are true here. First, more study is a good idea. Let's see if that gap between "actually" and "possibly" can or should be bridged.
And second, businesses should be prepared to get questions from shoppers, who are going to read headlines or hear a snippet and suddenly start wondering about the safety about products they are consuming. If there are questions, businesses need to have answers, so they don't lose control of the narrative.