Does Aspartame Cause Tumors and Pose Cancer Risks? The Jury Is Still Out
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"Sweet taste is a quality of some chemical substances that the human race has always associated with pleasure," wrote George E. Inglett in the 1984 book Aspartame: Physiology and Biology, about the controversial artificial sweetener marketed in powder form under popular brands like NutraSweet and Equal. Initially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974, aspartame is now "consumed by over 200 million people in more than 6,000 products," according to the Calorie Control Council's dedicated site Aspartame.org. "As a result, high value has been placed on materials exhibiting sweetness," Inglett wrote.
Not just high value, but high risk, according to scientists who have watched the hyperconsumptive human race incorporate sugar, and its replacements, more inextricably into their diet than ever before. The jury is already in when it comes to the ravages of sugar, especially in sodas. The escalating use of sugar has engendered diabetes and obesity epidemics worldwide. But after years of intrigue touching on everything from its approval process to its possible carcinogenicity, the jury is out on the still-controversial aspartame. It could be responsible for increases in various cancers and even Gulf War Syndrome, or, it could not. And that uncertainty is fueling both aspartame's increasing consumption, and possibly its mounting menace.
"Because of a 1970s-era study that suggested that it caused brain tumors in rats, and because it causes headaches or dizziness in a small number of people, a cloud of doubt has long hung over aspartame," explained Dr. Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC.
The main reason for that cloud, according to Jacobson, is the defining lack of research. Even with unassailable data, controversies have a tendency to remain potent. (File under: Climate change.) Especially in a digital age when information and disinformation share the same spread patterns.
"Unfortunately, few independent studies have been conducted since the company-sponsored tests of the seventies," Jacobson said. "However, a respected Italian laboratory has conducted two lifetime-feeding studies on rats in the past several years. Both studies, which were published in a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by the U.S. government, indicated that aspartame caused tumors. Those findings are of great concern, but the fact that the researchers won't permit the Food and Drug Administration to examine the original pathology slides raises questions about the reliability of the studies."
In other words, there are enough politicized wrinkles in the aspartame controversy to grow old trying to settle it. In that Italian study, conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences, scientists claimed that FDA's acceptable daily intake (ADI) of aspartame -- 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, approved in 1983 -- is potentially carcinogenic. For their part, both the FDA and the industry-friendly Calorie Control Council are compromised by that infamous claim. The latter "represent[s] the low-calorie and reduced-fat food and beverage industry" heavyweights like Coke, Pepsi and more.
The former? Two words: Donald Rumsfeld.
Between 1977 and 1985, the conniving neoconservative -- a man whom even Richard Nixon dubbed a "ruthless little bastard" -- served as president of G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company (now part of Pfizer) that discovered the sweetness of aspartame in 1965, after a chemist heating it in a flask with methanol accidentally licked the substance from his fingers. By 1974, Searle had gotten aspartame approved for use in dry foods by the FDA, but claims of carcinogenicity from neuropathologist John Olney and anti-additive author and lawyer James Turner, as well as grand jury proceedings instituted by the Department of Justice against Searle for drug-study fraud, prevented the company from marketing the artificial sweetener.