by Marion Nestle
Aug 25 2023

Is WHO’s aspartame decision conflicted?

One of the most viewed articles in The Guardian last week was this one on possible conflicts of interest among WHO panelists dealing with the health effects of the artificial sweetener, aspartame.

The headline: Revealed: WHO aspartame safety panel linked to alleged Coca-Cola front group

The article refers to the release last month of two somewhat contradictory reports on the potential carcinogenicity of the artificial sweetener, aspartame, a situation I referred to in this space as crazy-making.

To review:

  • The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • But in the same report, the WHO and FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) said a daily aspartame intake of 40 mg/kg body weight was acceptable.

A  report from US Right to Know poses a possible explanation: “Did a Coca-Cola front group sway a WHO review of aspartame?

One possible answer: at least six out of 13 JECFA panel members have ties to ILSI, a longtime Coca-Cola front group. [In addition] Both the chair and vice chair of the JECFA panel have ties to ILSI.

I’ve written repeatedly about ILSI actions on behalf of the food industry, most recently about how it tracked responses to my book Unsavory Truth (in which I discuss the organization as a front group).

Just because committee members have affiliations with an industry front group does not mean they cannot be objective about the science of aspartame, and I have certainly heard arguments that anyone who has any stature in nutrition cannot avoid such ties (full disclosure: in the late 1980s, ILSI attempted—unsuccessfully, no surprise—to recruit me for a job).

But it is striking that 8 of 13 members had such an affiliation, a (perhaps) coincidence that got The Guardian’s attention.

At the very least, the membership gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is one reason why such things matter.