Does Aspartame Really Cause Cancer?
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Last month, another food scare hit the headlines. This time the papers were full of reports that the artificial sweetener, aspartame, may cause cancer. The press furore exploded after Liberal Democrat MP, Roger Williams, said that items containing aspartame should be taken off the shelves because strong scientific evidence revealed the components of aspartame and their metabolites could have a serious toxic effect on humans.
Interestingly, his comments in the House of Commons came six months after the publication of the research from Italy that linked aspartame to cancer in rats. The research from the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences was published in the European Journal of Oncology in June. Researchers found that aspartame added to feed caused a statistically significant increase in lymphomas and leukaemias in female rats.
Unsurprisingly, the Aspartame Information Service claims the comments about the safety of aspartame appear to be ‘an attempt by Roger Williams to obtain publicity by scaring consumers about a safe and beneficial food ingredient’. The Aspartame Information Service also states the findings of the Italian study are inconsistent with the extensive body of scientific research that exists about aspartame, and confirm this popular artificial sweetener is safe. But can we really trust this conclusion?
At the moment, it would seem we can. In the past 20 years, aspartame has undergone many safety reviews – and has consistently been shown to be completely safe. The most recent of these safety reviews was carried out by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), who reviewed more than 500 papers published in the scientific literature between 1988 and 2001 on the safety of aspartame. Its review included studies supporting the safety of aspartame and others pointing to potential adverse effects. Following this extensive review, the SCF concluded aspartame was safe.
In fact, the safety of aspartame has been confirmed by the regulatory authorities in more than 130 countries including the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, America’s Food and Drug Administration and by experts within the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. Furthermore, the UK’s Food Standards Agency don’t recommend that consumers make any changes to their diet at the current time.
However, in view of this new Italian research, the European Food Safety Authority is undertaking an urgent assessment of the study to establish whether there are any implications for human health. Once its findings have been delivered, health advice may change. But in the meantime, there appears to insufficient evidence to recommend avoiding aspartame.
Aspartame is an intense sweetener that’s around 200 times sweeter than sugar. It’s sometimes referred to by its original trade name of NutraSweet and appears on ingredient lists either as ‘aspartame’ or ‘E951’. It’s typically found in many sugar-free or ‘diet’ products including cola, chewing gum, yoghurts and desserts. Plus it’s the main ingredient in many artificial sweeteners typically used for drinks and cereals.
At the moment, the major health organisations maintain that aspartame is safe to use. However, like the Food Standards Agency, we recognise that some consumers may wish to avoid foods containing this sweetener. If you want to limit your intake, avoid foods that include the words ‘aspartame’ or E951 in the ingredients list – you’ll find it most commonly in products labelled ‘diet’, ‘sugar-free’ or ‘reduced-sugar’. In the meantime, swap diet colas or squashes for sparkling water or diluted pure fruit juice, mix low-fat natural yoghurt with fresh fruit instead or grabbing a pot of sugar-free fruit yoghurt and try fruit salad with a meringue instead of a ready-made dessert. And don’t forget that 1tsp of sugar only provides 16 calories!
You can use the food diary and database tools in WLR to make sure your diet is healthy, balanced and contains the right amount of calories. Try it Free for 24 hours.