Bitterly sweet 'n' sticky

Published: Monday 15 August 2005

-- (Credit: Shyamal)resh doubts have been raised about the safety of aspartame, an artificial sweetener used extensively in processed foods and also as a tabletop sweetener. The European Food Safety Authority (efsa) has decided to evaluate its safety in view of the findings of a study carried out by the European Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (efoes), Bologna, Italy, revealing aspartame's carcinogenic potential. Though the sweetener has been certified safe by various agencies and its manufacturers also vouch for the same, its health risks have remained an unsettled issue ever since its introduction. A us $350 million lawsuit has been filed in the us on NutraSweet Company and others for deliberately manufacturing, marketing and promoting "toxic aspartame" despite the various health problems it can cause, including arthritis, asthma, brain cancer, diarrhoea, hypertension and memory and vision loss (see Down To Earth, 'Sweetly worked', October 31, 2004).

NutraSweet initially held the patent of aspartame, which has become offpatent now. Aspartame accounts for 70 per cent consumption in the us low-calorie sweetener market, the world's biggest. The new study shows that it can increase the risk of cancer in rats; the method is considered a good predictor of how the chemical will work in the human body.

The study used 1,800 rats, which were fed amounts of the sweetener equivalent to the allowed daily intake for humans. A dose-related statistically significant increase of lymphomas and leukaemias was detected in the dead female rats. The increase was high even in rats fed low amounts of aspartame. Contrary to industry claims, the diet didn't affect the rats' body weights. The study has been peer reviewed and is to appear in the European Journal of Oncology, published by efoes, Bologna, Italy. But it is likely to take several months before efsa arrives at a decision on aspartame. For now, it doesn't suggest any change in its intake.

The industry, meanwhile, defends aspartame. The International Sweeteners Association (isa), Belgium, says the study shouldn't have been reported until it was completed and its results reviewed by independent scientists. It also claims that the amounts of the sweetener fed to the rats were much higher than those consumed by even its heaviest consumers.

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