The sweetener aspartame is a “possible carcinogen” but it remains safe to consume at already agreed levels, two groups linked to the World Health Organization (WHO) have declared.

The rulings are the outcome of two separate WHO expert panels, one of which flags whether there is any evidence that a substance is a potential hazard, and the other which assesses how much of a real-life risk that substance poses.

Aspartame is one of the world’s most popular sweeteners, used in products from Coca-Cola diet sodas to Extra chewing gum.

In a press conference before the announcement, the WHO’s head of nutrition, Francesco Branca, tried to help consumers make sense of the seemingly conflicting declarations, especially those who seek out artificial sweeteners to avoid sugar.

“If consumers are faced with the decision of whether to take cola with sweeteners or one with sugar, I think there should be a third option considered – which is to drink water instead,” Branca said.

In its first declaration on the additive, announced early on Friday, the Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer said aspartame was a “possible carcinogen”.

That classification means there is limited evidence that a substance can cause cancer.

It does not take into account how much a person would need to consume to be at risk, which is considered by a separate panel, the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization joint committee on Food Additives (JECFA), based in Geneva.

After undertaking its own comprehensive review, JECFA said it did not have convincing evidence of harm caused by aspartame, and continued to recommend that people keep their consumption levels of aspartame below 40mg/kg a day.

It first set this level in 1981, and regulators worldwide have similar guidance for their populations.

Several scientists not associated with the reviews said the evidence linking aspartame to cancer is weak. Food and beverage industry associations said the decisions showed aspartame was safe and a good option for people wanting to reduce sugar in their diets.

The WHO said that the existing consumption levels meant that, for example, a person weighing between 60-70kg would have to drink more than 9-14 cans of soda daily to breach the limit, based on the average aspartame content in the beverages – about 10 times what most people consume.

“Our results do not indicate that occasional consumption could pose a risk to most consumers,” said Branca.

He said the WHO is not urging companies to remove aspartame from their products entirely, but is instead calling for moderation from manufacturers and consumers. Earlier this year, the WHO said there was no evidence that sweeteners helped with weight control, which the industry has disputed.

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