A Warning Label on Aspartame for European Moms (Only?)
Artificial colors are everywhere, it seems. But so is the artificial sweetener, aspartame—the basis for NutraSweet and Equal. It’s used in everything from Diet Coke to Yoplait yogurt. And since it was one of the chemical additives mentioned in association with the Southampton study, a groundbreaking study in England that led to consumers insisting that artificial dyes and preservatives be removed from Kraft’s food products sold in the UK, it’s probably a good idea to take a look at its use here in the United States.
Aspartame has been linked to a host of deadly diseases, including brain tumors, brain lesions, and lymphoma and removed from children’s products in other countries. But if you want to understand both the science and the politics of synthetic ingredients and how they have been so widely adopted, aspartame is a classic example.
The story of aspartame begins in 1981, when the substance was first approved by the FDA as an artificial sweetener for human consumption. Fourteen years later, in 1995, the chief of the FDA’s Epidemiology Branch—the division that monitors the incidence of diseases and medical problems—reported that in those fourteen years, complaints about aspartame constituted 75 percent of all FDA reports concerning adverse reactions to food.
Of course, just because someone reports a complaint doesn’t mean the complaint is justified. Either a patient or a doctor might believe, incorrectly, that aspartame caused a condition that was actually caused by something else. So let’s not rely on people’s (and doctors’) reports. Let’s take a look at the scientific research that has been done.
Here are just a few conditions that aspartame has been accused of causing:
* Weight gain: A 1997 study at the university of Texas Health Sciences Center, reported at a meeting of the American Diabetes Association, found a “41 percent increase in the risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.” These findings were supported by another study, published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, showing that 5 percent of subjects who reported symptoms from aspartame also reported a “paradoxic weight gain.” And a study in the International Journal of Obesity likewise found that women who were dieting tended to take in more calories after consuming aspartame than after ingesting either sugar or water.
* Memory lapses: A 2001 Psychology Today article reported on a Texas Christian University study suggesting that aspartame users were more likely to report long-term memory lapses. “After reporting his findings at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting,” the article continued, “[psychology professor Timothy M.] Barth [,Ph.D.,] cautioned that he thinks it’s premature to condemn aspartame. But he does worry about the largely untested effects of long-term use.”
* Brain tumors: In November 2006, the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology published a scientific paper saying that aspartame, might be responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of people who develop brain tumors. Reported in a 60 Minutes broadcast, the Swedish study found a link among elderly and middle-aged people between drinking diet sodas and developing certain types of large brain tumors.
* Lymphomas, leukemia, and other cancers: A long-term Italian study conducted by Italy’s Ramazzini Foundation by Morando Soffritti and his colleagues and published in the summer of 2005 in the European Journal of Oncology linked aspartame to lymphomas and leukemias in animals. A 2005 followup study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that aspartame was linked to a significant increase in cancer of the kidney and peripheral nerves.
Now, this Italian study has also been the subject of controversy. Both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and our own FDA concluded that these findings were not cause for concern.
Likewise, the FDA claimed to have found “significant shortcomings” in the Italian study, shortcomings that “compromised” its findings. In August 2007, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority concurred, issuing a press release criticizing the study and affirming the safety of aspartame.
Further criticism of the Italian study came, implicitly, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which published a study in April 2006 finding no meaningful link between aspartame and leukemia, lymphoma, or brain tumor. The study relied on 1995 and 1996 surveys completed by 340,045 men and 226,945 women—obviously, a huge number—detailing what they ate and drank. Based on followup data from this sample, the NCI concluded, you couldn’t link aspartame and cancer.
However, the NCI study also had its critics, who pointed out that the Italian study was designed to measure lifelong consumption of aspartame, focusing on its cumulative effects, rather than considering only a few years. Moreover, the humans in the NCI study were middle-aged, whereas, according to neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock, “The greatest risk of leukemia and lymphoma would be in a younger population (young children and adolescents) and they would need to be exposed regularly from early in life.” (I shuddered at this one, thinking about how many diet sodas unknowingly are consumed by moms during pregnancy).
Clearly, this is a case where the experts would appear to disagree. So, let’s dig deeper. Who benefits from saying aspartame is safe? The aspartame industry. And guess what? An analysis of peer-reviewed medical literature conducted by Ralph G. Walton, M.D. and cited in a CBS/60 Minutes segment that aired in December 1996, found that 100 percent of the studies in their review that had been funded by the aspartame industry found that aspartame was safe.
And what about the non-industry funded studies? Dr. Walton’s analysis found that of the 90 non-industry funded studies, 82 of them, or a whopping 92 percent, identified one or more problems with aspartame.
You got it: All the industry-funded studies said aspartame was completely safe. Ninety-two percent of the independent studies said aspartame poses at least some dangers.
And if you need a little more insight into industry-funded research, I can cite a very unlikely source: a group of leading agrichemical corporations (you know, Monsanto, DuPont and ADM): “The report said private companies’ research is directed toward their own sales and profits, and that federal research is needed to address long-term and overlooked needs.”
That point is reiterated by a team of researchers, including Harvard’s David Ludwig, as well as other researchers from Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., who reviewed 206 articles published during 1999-2003. The researchers concluded, “Funding source was significantly related to conclusions when considering all article types. . . Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.”
In other words, when industry pays for a study, it tends to get science that supports the safety of its products. And when a study is independently funded—as with the 82 aspartame studies—it is far more likely (in the case of aspartame, 92 percent more likely) to be critical of a food, drink, or additive, with, as Dr. Ludwig at Harvard had just pointed out, “potentially significant implications for public health.”
So if someone tells you that there’s still a lot of controversy about aspartame, technically, they’re right. But as Europe takes precautionary measures and Kraft, Coca Cola and other American companies remove it from the products they are selling in other countries, the French are now asking for a warning label of this synthetic sweetener for pregnant moms.
Sure, the industry insists that it’s safe. But the independent scientists, on the other hand, insist that aspartame is dangerous—and it’s a message that they’ve been repeating for more than forty years.
In light of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in American children under the age of 15 and that 1 in 8 women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes (with 90% of those cancers being environmentally triggered), wouldn’t it make sense to exercise this precaution in the United States, too, so that pregnant moms could make an informed choice when it comes to exposing their unborn babies?
And while correlation is not causation, given how many complaints have been filed with the FDA and the fact that aspartame has been removed from children’s products in other countries, a warning label might not be a bad place to start.