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Is aspartame a deadly carcinogen?

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Probably not.

Although there are some published studies that question the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame, there is over 20 years of much stronger research which directly contradict these findings. In fact, the studies that have most recently labeled aspartame as a possible carcinogen have all been conducted by the Ramazzini Foundation in Italy. While the Ramazzini Foundation is a legitimate research institute, the findings of these specific studies have been disputed by both the European Food Safety Authority, who referenced many confounding factors and inconsistencies in the methods and results, and by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

History of Debate

Aspartame is an artificial, no-calorie, sweetener used in many products such as Diet Pepsi, sugar free ice cream and diet iced tea. It was approved for use by the FDA in 1981 after a lengthy process spanning nearly ten years. At the time its approval was controversial, with people questioning the reliability of the FDA studies and concerns that the former FDA commissioner was pressured to approve aspartame. These claims were evaluated and debunked by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 1987. In 1996, when an episode of 60 Minutes discussed the approval process of the FDA, the original claims against aspartame's approval began to resurface, resulting in the generation of conspiracy theories.

Since then, there have been multiple studies published, in 2006, 2007 and 2010, which called into question the safety of aspartame. These studies were conducted on lab rats by researchers from European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Italy. Each of the studies concluded, in some capacity, that aspartame could possibly increase the risk of some cancers, including blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas. The Ramazzini Foundation does not seem to have a specific tie to any one funding source, but since their research relies heavily on investigating whether compounds we are regularly in contact with are a cause of cancer, they may feel inclined to publish literature suggesting a compound promotes cancer rather than does not in order to gain more attention.

Since the publication of these studies by the Ramazzini Foundation there have been a multitude of articles written by newspapers, news sites such as Buzzfeed and "natural" health bloggers about the topic. This claim has continued to be perpetuated throughout social media and the blogosphere, often without clear reference to its origin.

Issues and Analysis

Although aspartame has been labeled as a carcinogen by the Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences, the European Food Safety Authority has since questioned the reliability of the study. Specifically, after reviewing the study, it was found that incidence of chronic inflammatory disease in the lungs of the rats used in the study was observed in the controls as well as the aspartame treated groups. There was also a slight increase of cancer incident within treated subjects that was found to not be related to aspartame, but could have possibly been due to a result of chronic inflammatory disease side effects within the rats. In addition to this, there was no dose-response relationship found between increasing incidence of cancers and aspartame doses. Issues that were found to arise in the kidneys and bladder were also found to not be associated with aspartame directly; as many other chemicals have resulted in the same side effects when administered at high dosages, it is thought that side effects may be related more directly to an irritation of calcium metabolism.

In reference to these studies the FDA also issued a statement which noted many negative chronic carcinogenicity studies as well as a large epidemiology study with negative associations between aspartame use and tumor occurrence.

Two comprehensive reviews overviewing the safety of aspartame were published in 2013 and 2015, both of which concluded that aspartame was safe for consumption. The review article published in 2013 focused on the conclusions of studies that were conducted in response to the Ramazzini Foundation's publication, all of which were found to not show a correlation between aspartame and various cancers; and the review in 2015 assessed studies relating aspartame to genotoxicity, finding aspartame to not be genetically toxic.

As a final note, it's worth stating that while there is no evidence that aspartame is dangerous, there is ample evidence that sugar is very dangerous, and implicated in a wide variety of negative health outcomes. If people use artificial sweeteners to successfully reduce sugar intake, the net effect may be positive:

Nutritional experts do tend to agree on one point: a big problem with the American diet is sugar. To many of them, anything that reduces sugar intake is a plus, whether it's will power or a reasoned consumption of artificially sweetened food and drink. As pediatrician Aaron Carroll put it in one of his indispensable Healthcare Triage videos: "There's an abundance of evidence that overconsumption of sugar is contributing to health problems; there's a lack of evidence that artificial sweeteners are doing the same."

Further Reading

1997: Study concluding that there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that consumption of aspartame is related to pediatric brain tumor occurrence.

2007: FDA statement on the Ramazzini Foundation aspartame studies..

2007: Epidemiology study that states there is no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue.

2008: Soffritti responds to criticisms of claims that aspartame is a carcinogen.

2013: EFSA statement about Ramazzini Foundation studies from panel on "Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food"

2014: Ramazzini Foundation publication stating the urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation.

See Also

https://www.vox.com/2015/4/25/8494707/aspartame-dangerous


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