It's sweet, but is it safe?
As we reported this week on the In Brief and In Depth section of CABI's nutrition and food sciences portal ('FDA Refutes Aspartame Carcinogen Accusation', 25/04/07), the FDA has laid to rest accusations that aspartame is carcinogenic. It may not be 'natural', but it's not dangerous.
Laid to rest? Maybe not…
The reason for the uproar, not to mention the countless dollars spent in reviewing data and conducting new studies, was a report from the European Ramazzini Foundation in Bologna, Italy. In 2005, the Foundation's scientific director, Morando Soffritti reported that they had conducted an extensive study in rats which showed the carcinogenic potential of aspartame when fed to rats at levels not considered excessive for human consumption. Soffritti's findings were also reported on nutritionandfoodsciences.org ('Aspartame May Cause Cancer in Sprague-Dawley Rats', 22/11/2005). This report naturally raised public concerns about the widespread use of the sweetener, which is found in thousands of food products as well as pharmaceuticals, especially products aimed at children. The authors in fact concluded, 'On the basis of these results, a re-evaluation of the present guidelines on the use and consumption of APM is urgent and cannot be delayed.'
In the interests of public protection, the Food and Drug Administration was duty-bound to investigate, having first approved aspartame for inclusion in the public's diet in 1981. However, as the FDA reported last week in formulating their final opinion, they failed to receive all the experimental data from the Ramazzini Foundation on which they had hoped to begin the re-evaluation that Soffritti and his colleagues had so urgently requested. From the data they did receive, the FDA concluded, in a report released on Sunday, that 'the data provided do not appear to support the aspartame-related findings reported' and thus found 'no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food.'
The battle that Soffritti seems to have locked his horns into, however, goes much wider than a scientific dispute with the FDA. The European Food Safety Authority was also under the obligation to look into the allegations, again, as you would if you were a public body responsible for protecting the health of millions of taxpaying citizens. They also found no evidence of anything other than an 'incidental' finding of lymphomas and leukaemias in rats fed aspartame, as said as much in a 44 page report published in May last year (as reported on nutritionandfoodsciences.org, 'European Food Safety Authority Re-Confirms Safety of Aspartame', In Brief and In Depth 08/05/06). The FDA spent a little longer reviewing the data, but ultimately came to the same conclusion.
Although I only spent a matter of minutes searching CAB Abstracts' nutrition and food sciences database, out of the 666 abstracts the search unearthed mention aspartame, only six discussed carcinogenic effects. Of those six, only one paper, Soffretti's, reported a positive correlation. The other, negative, findings came from epidemiological, case-control and toxicological studies, in humans and rats.
Of the other 660 reports available on CAB Abstracts, it is clear that aspartame and other 'non-sugar' sweeteners have not only become ubiquitous in sweets and drinks, but their popularity extends beyond consumers and manufacturers. Nutritionists, dieticians (weight control) and dentists (anticariogenic) have all expressed support for non-nutritive sweeteners, whose health benefits are believed to far outstrip any potential health risk.
Don't, however, expect the controversy to end here. Soffritti has just presented data from his second study. Soffritti presented new data on Monday at the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, where he also received the prestigious Irving J. Selikoff award for cancer research. Although these are not yet in the public domain, you can guarantee that they will appear on www.nutritionandfoodsciences.org.