Aspartame Safety Study Stirs Emotions
Italian Study Shows Sweetener Promotes Cancer in Rats; FDA Says It's Safe
WebMD News Archive
June 26, 2007 -- Researchers and a scientific watchdog group are calling on
regulators to take a new look at the safety of aspartame following a new study
concluding that the popular sweetener promotes cancer in rats.
The study, published in a U.S. government journal, found increased rates of
malignancies in animals fed aspartame throughout their lifespan. The product,
which is the key ingredient in sweeteners including NutraSweet and Equal, is
also used to sweeten thousands of food products and is widely used in diet soft
Aspartame first gained U.S. approval in 1981. Ever since, manufacturers have
vigorously defended its safety. On Tuesday, an industry group blasted the study
as flawed and warned it would needlessly alarm consumers.
But the Italy-based research team said their study shows that lifetime
exposure of rats to aspartame -- beginning in the womb -- increased the
incidence of having cancerous tumors by the time they died.
"We believe that a review of the current regulations governing the use
of aspartame cannot be delayed," wrote researchers from the European
Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Bologna.
The study was published online in the journal Environmental Health
Perspectives, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health
The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest followed the
study with a call on the FDA to revisit its original approval of aspartame.
"Because aspartame is so widely consumed, it is urgent that the FDA
evaluate whether aspartame still poses a 'reasonable certainty of no harm,' the
standard used for gauging the safety of food additives," Michael Jacobson,
the group's executive director, said in a statement.
"But consumers, particularly parents, shouldn't wait for the FDA to act.
People shouldn't panic, but they should stop buying beverages and foods
containing aspartame," he said.
Previous Study 'Reassuring'
A study published last year by the National Cancer Institute found no
correlation between aspartame consumption and cancer growth in nearly 475,000
people. While the study was not designed to find a causal link between
aspartame and cancer, Jacobson's group at the time said they were reassured
that aspartame is safe for humans at typical amounts most people consume.
On Tuesday, Jacobson said that sense of reassurance was gone thanks to the
latest Italian animal study.
"The previous study was reassuring but certainly not definitive,"
Jacobson tells WebMD. "I think the FDA needs to take a new look at this,
and then we'll go from there."
Beth Hubrich, a spokeswoman for the industry group Calorie Control Council,
criticizes the study's methods.
"This goes against the overwhelming scientific literature that aspartame
is safe," she tells WebMD.
That was echoed by the FDA. Spokesman Michael Herndon says the agency was
interested in reviewing the Italian study. But he says the results are "not
consistent" with results from a large number of other studies evaluated by
"Therefore, at this time, FDA finds no reason to alter its previous
conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food,"
the statement says.
Jacobson argues that most of those studies left "question marks"
because they were industry funded.