Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been labelled by the World Health Organisation as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
It is commonly found as an additive in diet sodas such as Diet Coke, Pepsi Max, and food like yoghurt and confectionery.
While it has been used in Australia since 1986, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO body, reclassified aspartame as a class 2B carcinogen in July.
The re-classification was due to the findings of an aspartame study done in both humans and animals.
According to Australian Beverage, aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar and is used in minute increments.
While the IARC stated “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans, the report revealed links between aspartame consumption and hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened and diet drinks. They are also most likely to consume them in greater amounts than women.
Curtin Student Guild president Dylan Botica says he drinks three to five cans of Diet Coke daily with no signs of slowing down.
While he acknowledges aspartame as a potential cancer risk, he will continue to drink Diet Coke.
“You will have to outrightly ban aspartame for me to stop drinking it,” he says.
Curtin Hockey Stadium assistant Daniel Kontor understands the dangers of aspartame but is choosing to ignore it.
For Mr Kontor, this is typically the only soft drink he can consume as a diabetic.
“I have type 2 diabetes, so I can’t have high sugary drinks and I’m limited in my beverage options when out with friends,” he says.
The ABS report in 2018 revealed younger people were more likely to consume soft drinks, with 61 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds consuming them at least once a week.
Curtin Tav manager Mitch Perrin believes the new classification will not impact diet soft drink sales at the university tavern.
While they could not track the amount of diet sodas they sell monthly, Mr Perrin says it remains a popular item.
“I don’t think it will change people’s minds,” he says. “People choose the drinks based on taste.”
University of Adelaide pharmacology senior lecturer Ian Musgrave says while IARC findings are concerning, the classification of aspartame is on the lower end of the carcinogenic scale.
The IARC classifies its human carcinogens into four classifications: Group 1, Group 2A, Group 2B and Group 3.
Aspartame, Dr Musgraves says, is in the same carcinogenic group as a hot beverage. He says the report by IARC should not be taken as gospel as other bodies under WHO have deemed aspartame safe.
“The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, who also sit under WHO, have run various clinical studies over the years, and their views on aspartame remain the same,” he says.
Dr Musgraves says the IARC focuses on finding any evidence that might point to cancer under any circumstances, as opposed to JEFCA, which looks at whether there is a potential risk.
“We have to put some risks in perspective. The risk from the sweeteners for cancer is incredibly low,” he says.
Curtin University nutrition lecturer Rebecca Russell agrees and says context is important when discussing study findings.
“We know alcohol is a high-level carcinogen, but you have people scared about the diet coke in their drink as opposed to the rum they’re drinking.”
Ms Russell, a registered nutritionist, says the trouble with aspartame lies in consumption.
“If people are drinking a lot, like litres of diet soda per day, then my advice would be perhaps switching to flavouring the water with fruit,” she says.
Dr Musgraves believes many people turn to soft drinks as a lower-calorie option, but there are healthier options.
“You’re better off drinking carbonated water, or yet, just drink water.”