Aspartame Update
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | June 27, 2006

Artificial sweeteners are probably the most criticized food additive on the internet after hydrogenated fat. Topping that list of artificial sweeteners is aspartame. As I wrote in 2001 [September 4th Newsletter], the safety of using aspartame was one of the most frequently asked questions we get at Better Life and it still is. Recently published research goes a long way to address some of the issues raised about this artificial sweetener. This Newsletter will review the latest research on aspartame.

Toxicity and Carcinogenesis
In the fall of 2005, the National Toxicology Program released a 224-page report on the toxicity and carcinogenicity of aspartame (1). Researchers used two strains of mice that have compromised immune systems and are especially susceptible to cancer. This allows fewer animals to be tested. Those of you who read the Newsletter regularly know that I’m not a big fan of rodent research, but it can provide results quickly because of the short lifespans of rodents.

The researchers fed each group of mice one of five different amounts of aspartame; the control group was fed none. Then they looked at differences in survival rates and tumor production at 15 different tissue sites.

The results: there were no differences between controls and the mice consuming any of the five amounts of aspartame in either of the two strains of mice. Even nine months at the highest dosage of aspartame had no effect on the rate of cancer.

The nice thing about this report is that all the data on every animal is reported--people who want to run statistical analyses for themselves may do so.

European Health and Safety
In March of 2006, the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center published a research paper that demonstrated a relationship between aspartame and the rate of cancer in rats (2). This was a well-designed study that used a large number of animals in each group. Researchers administered six different levels of aspartame to the animals beginning at eight weeks of age and extending through their entire life. They concluded that even at half the dose found to be acceptable for humans, there was an increased potential for developing multiple cancers in rats fed aspartame. You can imagine that this caused quite a stir.

Having examined the results, one of the problems is that there is no clear dose-response relationship between aspartame consumption and carcinogenicity. One would expect to see the number of tumors increase as the aspartame intake increases. That relationship is just not there in any single category--tumor rate, number of tumors, etc.

As mentioned before, the study caused quite a stir in Europe, to the extent that the European Food Safety Authority was asked to examine the study to determine if aspartame should be removed from the market (3). In a 44-page document, they reviewed the research as well as the research of the National Toxicology Program. Their conclusions were that based on the errors and potential confounding variables due to potentially ill animals, the study could not justify its recommendations for the removal of aspartame from the European market. Therefore, there was no reason to change the current recommendations for aspartame use.

Here’s the point: if you’ve been concerned about using aspartame because you’ve heard that it causes cancer or brain lesions or that’s it’s a toxin, an examination of the science says there’s no need to be concerned, and there never really was.

The one true fact in all the criticism of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners is that the increasing use of diet products using aspartame has not resulted in weight loss. Quoting a great scientist, William Castelli, MD, “Americans can’t outrun their appetites.” Ordering a diet soda with that burger and fries really doesn’t solve the problem of eating too many calories.

Here’s the question that’s never been addressed by the critics: do people feel better because they don’t use aspartame or do they feel better because they expect to feel better based on what they’ve read? No studies have been conducted to test that hypothesis and until there is, the testimonials that dominate anti-aspartame websites are meaningless.

The debate on artificial sweeteners will continue, regardless of the preponderance of evidence that says they’re safe. As I wrote in the last article on aspartame, use it or don’t use it--it’s your choice. But don’t avoid it because of the scare tactics of a few people, probably well-intentioned but with nothing better to do.

  1. National Toxicology Program. Toxicology Studies of Aspartame (Cas No. 22839-47-0) in Genetically Modified (Fvb Tg.Ac Hemizygous) and B6.129-Cdkn2atm1rdp (N2) Deficient Mice and Carcinogenicity Studies of Aspartame in Genetically Modified [B6.129-Trp53tm1brd (N5) Haploinsufficient] Mice (Feed Studies) NIH Publication No. 06-4459. 2005.

  2. Soffritti, M et al. First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats. Environ Health Perspect. 2006; 114:379–385.

  3. Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids, and Materials in contact with Food (AFC) on a request from the Commission related to a new long-term carcinogenicity study on aspartame. The EFSA Journal (2006) 356, 1-44.
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