The drinks industry has reacted swiftly to a Reuters report suggesting the World Health Organization is set to rule aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic”.

Citing unnamed sources, Reuters has reported the WHO’s sub-agency for cancer research (IARC) intends to classify aspartame as a possible carcinogen – the same definition it applies to aloe vera and pickled vegetables.

It follows news the WHO was planning to release two reports assessing the safety aspartame next month. The reports are being prepared by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives respectively, according to Bloomberg.

In response to the apparent leak to Reuters, the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) said such a stance by the WHO “contradicts decades of high-quality scientific evidence” and could lead people to consume more sugar.

ICBA executive director Kate Loadman said the opinion would be “deeply concerning”.

“While it appears IARC is now prepared to concede that aspartame presents no more of a hazard to consumers than using aloe vera, public health authorities should be deeply concerned that this leaked opinion contradicts decades of high-quality scientific evidence and could needlessly mislead consumers into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe no- and low-sugar options – all on the basis of low-quality studies,” Loadman said.

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Citing “two sources with knowledge of the process”, Reuters said an IRC ruling earlier this month will see aspartame labelled “possibly carcinogenic to humans” for the first time next month.

The IRC assesses whether something is a potential hazard and does not take into account how much of a product a person can safely consume.

Loadman pointed to “the broader, more comprehensive food safety review underway by the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)” for more conclusive evidence.

She said: “Even IARC agrees it is not the appropriate authority to undertake risk assessment based on actual consumption and that it ‘does not make health recommendations.

“We remain confident in the safety of aspartame given the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and positive safety determinations by food safety authorities in more than 90 countries around the world.”

Brussels-based International Sweeteners Association (ISA) told Just Drinks it also had “serious concerns with preliminary speculation about the IARC opinion”.

Frances Hunt-Wood, ISA secretary general, said: “Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in history, with over 90 food safety agencies across the globe declaring it is safe, including the European Food Safety Authority, which conducted the most comprehensive safety evaluation of aspartame to date.”

She added: “No conclusions can be drawn until both [of the WHO’s] reports are published.”

Aspartame is an artificial non-saccharide sweetener commonly used in a range of CSDs and foods.

The substance has been approved for use in more than 90 countries worldwide despite some studies linking it to health problems including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, stroke and dementia.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, has ruled the substance as safe five times since first approving it as a sweetener in 1974.

The discussion comes just a month after the WHO said replacing sugar with non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) in food and beverages does not help with weight control.