There has been widespread reporting that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cancer research arm, will publish a report on aspartame on the 14th July 2023 that will label the sweetener as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

The report is said to be the result of a review of 1,300 studies on cancer and aspartame. It will also be published in the Lancet Oncology medical journal.


What is aspartame?


Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, used in food and drink. It provides sweetness but does not add calories and is approved for consumption in the United Kingdom. It has been used for decades and the BBC has reported that it is on the ingredient list of 6000 products in the UK.


How does this affect brands that use aspartame?


There are many studies that support the safety of aspartame. And, indeed, the product has been widely used for years. However, brands should be prepared that consumers may not to fully understand the nuances in this debate.

The average consumer’s interaction with the news may simply see them draw a snapshot conclusion from the report associating aspartame, or sweeteners in general, with cancer. If this happens there is no doubt that this will have a negative impact on brands that use the ingredient in their products.


The impact of sweeteners in general?


When one product in a category gets a bad name it can affect all the other products in its vicinity.

Brands that use sweeteners, even if they don’t specifically use aspartame, should be weary of the ‘Horn Effect’. This is the opposite of the ‘Halo Effect’ and could see consumers becoming wary of sweeteners in general.

Conversely, brands that heavily market themselves on their sweetener-free ingredient profile could see benefits and an uplift in sales.


How can brands respond?


Each brand will need their own dedicated Public Relations strategy to respond to this news to ensure sales aren’t affected. Even if the business’ overall strategy is to reformulate their products, they will still need a comms plan to deal with the interim period.

Firstly, brands need to consider whether they want to weigh in on this debate. This may simply draw unwanted attention, which organisations will want to avoid. That being said, brands may have no choice. As the media reports on the news, it may name brands that use aspartame, giving businesses little option but to respond.

In that scenario, there are four things they can do:


  1. Counter the report’s argument with other credible scientific reports and by communicating consensus from other reputable health organisations that support the safety of aspartame. A single brand may find they have better impact if they team up with others or join the efforts of an organisation to make this point. Partnering with independent scientists and nutritionists to support claims will be effective.


  1. Operate consumer education campaigns that help individuals understand the nuance of the debate.


  1. Run separate marketing, Public Relations and Influencer campaigns for their brand that positively promotes it in general, without discussing aspartame. This is a good strategy whether brands are being forced into the ‘aspartame debate’ or not.


  1. Long term, they may wish to change ingredient lists and reformulate products to benefit from changing consumer preferences.