IARC's "cancer" noise is unnecessarily irresponsible

As a result of numerous alarming announcements regarding potentially carcinogenic food products and ingredients, the IARC is being increasingly disregarded
Sylvain Charlebois
Professor, Dalhousie University
sylvain charlebois

The Reuters news agency recently released explosive information regarding aspartame. According to this leak, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), under the auspices of the World Health Organization, is preparing to declare aspartame as potentially carcinogenic. Thus, this ingredient found in over 6,000 food products in Canada could soon be added to the long list of carcinogenic substances.

Aspartame has been a subject of concern for some time now. It is a calorie-free artificial sweetener used as a substitute for sugar. Studies have long suggested risks associated with aspartame consumption, particularly for pregnant women. Therefore, many were not surprised by this leak, as it is simply a media leak for now. The official announcement by the IARC is scheduled for July 14, according to Reuters.

READ: Artificial sweeteners linked to weight gain, heart disease

PepsiCo, in fact, removed aspartame from its products in the United States as early as 2015 and permanently since 2020. Given the highly negative public perception, PepsiCo deemed it appropriate to eliminate this ingredient even before any declaration by the IARC. Reformulating products involves higher research production costs. Retail prices will certainly be affected. 

But according to the leak, aspartame would be classified in Group 2B. Group 2B is the classification for carcinogenic agents with relatively low risk, according to the IARC. This group also includes aloe vera, pickled vegetables and even hot beverages. There is also Group 2A, which lists agents probably carcinogenic, such as nitrates and red meat. Group 1 is reserved for agents considered carcinogenic, such as areca nut, alcoholic beverages, processed meat, and Chinese-style salted fish. The 2015 announcement regarding processed meat, red meat and beef was met with a great deal of skepticism by many individuals.

However, science is far more nuanced than a simple announcement from the IARC. The assessment conducted by this organization does not consider the context or quantity consumed. In reality, to face an increased risk associated with aspartame consumption, an adult would have to consume 12 to 36 cans of soda per day. This represents a considerable quantity for a single individual. Therefore, if the IARC makes an announcement in a few weeks, it is not certain that consumers will take it seriously. 

Let's take processed meats as an example, classified as carcinogenic since 2015. Consumption of processed meats in Canada continues to rise, now reaching 10.28 kilograms, according to Statista. Since 2015, the demand for processed meats in Canada has increased by over 3%, as reported by the WMS agency. Furthermore, Statista predicts that charcuterie demand in Canada will increase by at least 2.75% annually until 2028. In other words, consumers are not at all influenced by the IARC announcement.

With the multiple announcements made by the IARC in recent years, an increasing number of individuals consider the organization to be a group of alarmist experts. A striking example is the inclusion of glyphosate in Group 2A, classified as 'possibly carcinogenic', alongside hairdressers and night shift workers. These announcements have fuelled absurd campaigns by interest groups that exploit the trust of citizens.

Such a leak and potential announcement by the IARC are both irresponsible and dangerous. As soon as the terms “cancer” or “carcinogenic” are uttered, science and all else take a backseat. Cancer is a powerful word, a dreadful disease that affects the lives of millions of Canadians each year. Almost everyone knows at least one person who has died from this terrible illness. To exploit a disease in order to influence people's behaviour and dietary choices is deplorable.

Over time, the IARC's announcements have become a mockery, and nobody will adhere to their guidelines anymore. The IARC has turned into a scientific circus. We should focus on science-based decisions rather than institutionalized alarmism.

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