Every year, at the start of Lent, I think about aspartame and my love affair with Diet Coke. Little did I know….
I was hooked on the stuff through high school, college and well into business school. I was what the soda industry calls “a heavy user.” I’d drink about 6 cans of the stuff a day. So much so, that every year for Lent, I would give up my diet sodas. I was so hooked that the first few weeks of Lent always resulted in massive headaches, as my body went through withdrawals, and then I’d feel great.
Then on Easter Sunday, after 6 weeks off of the stuff, I’d dive straight back in. Until the year that I got married, when my husband asked me why not just stay off of it. And I did. I never went back. That was back in 1997, long before I began blowing the whistle on the dangerous ingredients in our food.
But 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.
Artificial colors are everywhere, it seems. But so is the artificial sweetener, aspartame—the basis for NutraSweet and Equal—which is used in everything from Diet Coke to yogurt. So why aren’t we talking about it?
In a surprise move last year, Diet Pepsi announced that it was breaking up with the artificial sweetener and removing it from its product.
“Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi and we’re delivering,” said Seth Kaufman, senior vice president of Pepsi and Flavors Portfolio, PepsiCo North America Beverages. “We recognize that consumer demand is evolving and we’re confident that cola-lovers will enjoy the crisp, refreshing taste of this new product.”
Since aspartame is one of the additives that is often not used in foods in other countries, it’s worth taking a look at why Pepsi wanted to drop it and why other companies aren’t doing the same.
If there was a small flurry of studies on synthetic coloring, the research done on aspartame qualifies as a blizzard. Aspartame has been linked to a host of diseases, including brain tumors, brain lesions, and lymphoma. Meanwhile, the story of how this controversial substance came to be approved by the FDA reads like a John Grisham novel. If you want to understand both the science and the politics of synthetic ingredients, aspartame offers almost a classic example of what can go wrong with both.
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.
Wow. Seventy-five percent of all complaints. Wouldn’t you think a number like that would give the FDA pause, maybe make it reconsider its approval?
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. Still—75 percent? That’s a lot of aspartame-related complaints: three times as many as all the other complaints put together.
But let’s not rely on people’s (and doctors’) reports. Let’s take a look at the scientific research that has been done.
- 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.”
Clearly, this is a case where the experts would appear to disagree. If even the scientists can’t agree on whether aspartame is safe or not, how are we supposed to decide?
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.
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. And of the 7 which found aspartame innocent, 6 were conducted by the FDA, an agency which, as we saw in Chapter 4 and as we’ll see later in this chapter, has virtually installed its own revolving door to welcome past and future executives from the food industry.
I find this information so shocking that I’m going to repeat it, just in case you think you might have read it wrong: All the industry-funded studies said aspartame was completely safe. Ninety-two percent of the independent studies said aspartame poses at least some dangers (99 percent if you don’t count studies conducted by the industry-riddled FDA).
Who do you think has the greatest incentive to tell the truth?
If you need one more piece of evidence to make you doubt industry-funded research, let me cite one last study, concerning medical articles about soft drinks, juice, and milk. 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., reviewed 206 articles published during 1999-2003. Of these articles, 111 disclosed financial sponsorship: 22 percent were entirely funded by the food industry; 47 percent had no industry ties; and 32 percent had mixed funding. Doesn’t that make you wonder about why all studies don’t disclose their financial sponsorship?
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.”
Above and beyond the funding, other scientists have raised questions both about the substance and about the research that’s been done to investigate it. A 1998 Spanish study conducted on rats found that aspartame ultimately converts to formaldehyde in the body, and then tends to accumulate in the brain, liver, kidneys, and other tissues. Industry scientists, however, replied that the Spanish scientists weren’t actually measuring formaldehyde, but rather some other byproducts from aspartame, which perhaps are not as harmful.
So if someone tells you that there’s still a lot of controversy about aspartame, technically, they’re right. But when you hear people arguing over whether the product is safe, be aware that the ones who say it is tend to be either from the food or chemical industries or from government agencies that fill key positions with food industry executives and sometimes even corporate shareholders.
Scientists have insisted that aspartame is dangerous—and they’ve been doing so for more than forty years. Consumers are listening. Even Diet Pepsi announced that they were getting rid of it last year.
According to the New York Times, the drop in soda consumption represents the single largest change in the American diet in the last decade. Over the last 20 years, sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent. Diet soda is declining, too.
A growing number of Americans continue to #dumpthejunk. For many, the first thing to go are the sodas. It’s not easy. It was a hard habit for me to break, I was hooked on Diet Coke, and I am so sensitive to how difficult it can be.
But it’s food for thought and worth considering. If you want to learn more about the Aspartame Affair, politicians involved in it (some of whom are still in the news today!), full details are available in my book, The Unhealthy Truth.
Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive, Maher TJ, Wurtman RJ, Environmental Health Perspectives 1987 Nov;75:53-7; Guiso G, Caccia S, Vezzani A, Stasi MA, Salmona M, Romano M, Garattini S. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 1988 Dec;96(3):485-93; , Trocho C, et al., Life Sci 1998;63(5):337-49
Sharon P. Fowler, S.P. MPH, University of Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine, San Antonio. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director, sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. WebMD News: “Artificial Sweeteners May Damage Diet Efforts.” Davidson, T.L. International Journal of Obesity, July 2004; vol 28: pp 933-955; CBS News: Diet Soda Drinkers Gain Weight, Overweight Risk Soars 41 Percent With Each Daily Can Of Diet Soda, June 13, 2005, accessed August 5, 2008
Monte WC. Aspartame: methanol and public health. Journal of Applied Nutrition 1984; 36: 52J H Lavin, S J French and N W Read, The effect of sucrose- and aspartame-sweetened drinks on energy intake, hunger and food choice of female, moderately restrained eaters International Journal of Obesity, January 1997, Volume 21, Number 1, Pages 37-42, Dangerous Diet Drinks Can’t live without your diet soda? It might be worse for you than you think. Aspartame can wreak havoc on your long-term memory, Psychology Today Magazine, Mar/Apr 2001
Roberts, H.J., “Does Aspartame Cause Human Brain Cancer,” Journal of Advancement in Medicine, Volume 4(4):231-241, 1991; CBS News, 60 Minutes, HOW SWEET IS IT?; CONTROVERSY CONTINUES OVER THE SAFETY OF ASPARTAME AS FDA WIDENS ITS APPROVAL TO OTHER FOODS, December 29, 1996; Olney J. W. et al, ‘Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?’, Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, Vol. 55, No 11, November 1996
European Food Safety Authority, Opinion of the Scientific Panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids and materials in contact with food (AFC) related to a new long-term carcinogenicity study on aspartame , Question number: EFSA-Q-2005-122, Adopted date: 03/05/2006, United States Food and Drug Administration, FDA Statement on European Aspartame Study, May 8, 2006,
New Zealand Food Safety Authority, Food Safety Authority challenges activists’ views on aspartame, August 3, 2007,
New Zealand Food Safety Authority, Food Safety Authority challenges activists’ views on aspartame,
MARILYNN MARCHIONE, Associated Press, No cancer risk found in diet soda’s aspartame, April 5, 2006, as cited in the Seattle Post Intelligencer http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/265559_soda05.html
Dr. Blaylock: Aspartame Is Still Hazardous, April 12, 2006,
CBS News, 60 Minutes, HOW SWEET IS IT?; CONTROVERSY CONTINUES OVER THE SAFETY OF ASPARTAME AS FDA WIDENS ITS APPROVAL TO OTHER FOODS, December 29, 1996;
Ralph G. Walton, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM), Survey of Aspartame studies: correlation of outcome and funding sources, Department of Medicine, Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts , Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles, Public Library of Science Medicine. 2007 Jan;4(1):e5, as cited on the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Departament de Bioquímica i Biologia Molecular, Facultat de Biologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain.
Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo, Life Sciences, 1998;63(5):337-49, as cited on the National Center for Biotechnology Information Medical and Scientific Affairs, The NutraSweet Company, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 2002 Apr;35(2 Pt 2):S1-93 , as cited on the National Center for Biotechnology Information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12180494
Gordon, Gregory, United Press International Investigation, as posted at Gordon, Gregory, United Press International Investigation, “NutraSweet: Questions Swirl” and accessed August 5, 2008