An in-depth review of more than 500 aspartame studies dating as far back as the 1970s has found there is no evidence linking use of the low-calorie sweetener with cancer or any other health problems. The reviewers stated, "there is no credible evidence that aspartame is carcinogenic," despite recent Italian research that showed it might cause leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer in rats.
"There have been continued questions in the media and on the internet about the safety of aspartame," said panel member and University of Maryland food and nutrition professor Bernadene Magnuson. "Our study is a very comprehensive review of all of the research that's been done on aspartame. Never before has a group with the breadth of experience of this panel looked at this question."
The review was sponsored by aspartame supplier, Ajinomoto, although its sponsorship was not known by the British, Dutch and US panellists and nor did Ajinomoto know the identity of the panellists. It was published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology on September 11, 2007.
While the number of sweeteners has burgeoned in recent years, and criticism has followed as it tends to follow all new ingredients with 'synthetic' connotations, aspartame has received a particularly negative press, possibly due to the fact it was one of the first to market. Aspartame first shot to prominence in the early 1980s under the brand name NutraSweet, which was used in Diet Coke and a host of other foods and beverages.
Many websites such as www.sweetpoison.com vilify the ingredient for supposed health risks but proof of such associations, and of links to cancers such as lymphoma, have been tenuous. The ingredient is also approved for use by most the world's major food agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who was the first to do so in 1981 and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The reviewers added: "The effect of aspartame on behaviour, cognitive function, and seizures has been studied extensively in animals, healthy children, hyperactive children, sugar-sensitive children, healthy adults, individuals with Parkinson's disease, and individuals suffering from depression. Overall, the weight of the evidence indicates that aspartame has no effect on behaviour, cognitive function, neural function, or seizures in any of these groups."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based better nutrition lobby group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said the study was skewed toward favourable research. It was "totally unreliable" and should be ignored, he said.
Another sweetener, isumaltolose, was recently ok'd by the FDA as a non-cariogenic sweetener. Palatinit, a German marketer of the sweetener under the name Palitonse, said the approval meant it could make claims such as, "does not promote tooth decay" or "may reduce the risk of dental caries."