Does Aspartame Cause Tumors and Pose Cancer Risks? The Jury Is Still Out

"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 "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.

Once the deeply politically connected Rumsfeld arrived, those defenses crumbled. Further aspartame studies, reevaluations and influence-peddling quickly took hold. By the time Rumsfeld left Searle in 1985, he had already shaken Saddam Hussein's hand, sold off the downsized Searle to agri-biz titan Monsanto (netting a cool $12 million in the process), and cleared the way for FDA approval of aspartame use in carbonated drinks.

That clearance, according to some aspartame theorists, could have led directly to Gulf War syndrome. The theory claims that soldiers drinking diet sodas in the desert heat were really ingesting methanol, which is purportedly released whenever aspartame is heated over 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Ergo, Gulf warriors baking in a 120-degree climate near palettes of cans containing the sweet stuff had no chance. They also note that there are nearly direct symmetries of serious side effects from aspartame test subjects and sufferers of Gulf War Syndrome. And then there is, always, Donald Rumsfeld, a sparkly data point on the matrix of aspartame and all things having to do with wars in Middle East deserts.

Mission accomplished. Right? Wrong. There are simply no smoking guns to be had. Yet.

"Bottom line," Jacobson concluded, "is that there are safety questions about aspartame, and it would be worth minimizing children's consumption of that additive."

Good luck with that. The average American swallows approximately 22 teaspoons of extra sugar daily, the American Heart Association warned in August 2009, while the maximum should be six for women and nine for men. And although the Calorie Control Council argues that one benefit of artificial sweeteners like aspartame is that they make great stand-ins for sugar for those suffering from diabetes and obesity, Purdue University's Ingestive Research Center says the opposite is true. Recent data from its studies "indicate that consuming a food sweetened with no-calorie saccharin can lead to greater body-weight gain and adiposity [fat] than would consuming the same food sweetened with a higher-calorie sugar," its scientists explained in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience. The reasons are simple: Artificial sweeteners are, well, artificial. They excite the taste buds, but don't sate them, creating a hunger for more calories where there should be satisfaction with less. The result? Instant appetite, as well as possible triggers for increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

But the science of aspartame, like its politics, are far from finished.

"We would not speculate on why some consider the approval to be controversial," FDA spokesperson Michael L. Herndon said to AlterNet. "Aspartame has been very well studied. Extensive toxicological and pharmacological studies were done in laboratory animals using far greater doses of aspartame than people could possibly consume. The safety of aspartame has been reviewed repeatedly, not only by the United States, but by other authorities, such as Canadian, United Kingdom, Australian and Japanese regulatory authorities, European Scientific Committee for Foods, European Food Safety Authority, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association."

"The overwhelming body of scientific evidence on aspartame is conclusive: aspartame is safe," added Calorie Control Council spokesperson Beth Hubrich. "It has been reviewed time and time again by regulatory bodies worldwide with the same conclusion: aspartame is safe."

Hubrich's probable exasperation on the issue is echoed by Jacobson, with a caveat. "The Internet is loaded with outrageously exaggerated claims about the dangers of aspartame," he said. "What the controversy deserves is careful new studies, ideally conducted by the federal government, to get to the bottom of the issue."

More science could go a long way toward annihilating the aspartame controversy once and for all. But it probably won't, unless it can maneuver around the potential obesity threat of both sugary and diet sodas, candies and other treats that trick us into lives of compromised health. Sweetening the pot are the hard numbers: The artificial sweetener market is annually valued at well over a couple billion dollars. That fact was at the heart of the recent court battle between the old-school titan aspartame (Equal) and the delicious newcomer sucralose (Splenda) for primacy in the market.

And even the FDA has admitted that we have an "obesity epidemic" on our hands, a statement that somewhat contradicts its belief in the safety of aspartame. It's a safety still in question, especially by states like Hawaii and New Mexico that have tried to ban the artificial sweetener, as well as those like California that are recommending deeper study on aspartame's carcinogenic quotient.

"If states are considering banning aspartame, they will also have to consider banning milk, chicken, meat, orange juice, tomato juice" and more, said Hubrich. "Because aspartame is made up of components found in everyday foods and beverages. Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, as the methyl ester. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are also found naturally in protein-containing foods, including meats, grains and dairy products. Methyl esters are also found naturally in many foods, such as fruits and vegetables and their juices."

Hubrich's chemistry is relatively sound, although her logic is fallacious. Just because aspartame is comprised of "everyday foods" does not mean a ban on aspartame as an additive or sugar substitute will lead to consideration of bans of any of the foods she mentions. But her concern is valid, given her employer's industry: A ban on aspartame, in any state, would seriously weaken aspartame's earnings reports. Especially given that store chains in countries with less disastrous health situations are already moving to ban artificial flavors and sweeteners. Throw in a wider artificial sweetener marketplace with more players, and the Calorie Control Council is right to be worried. If any scientific link between aspartame and obesity, to say nothing of cancer, is ever established, even Rumsfeld probably couldn't bring it back from the dead.

But the wider lesson of the continuing aspartame soap opera is sweet, not sour: America is a country hooked not just on sweets, but on the idea that sweets are socially acceptable. Our consumption levels have much wider ramifications beyond our bodies, from the invasion of soda machines in elementary schools to a fractured health care system that simply can't shoulder any more sugar-soaked fat-asses.

"By the fourteenth century," Inglett noted in Aspartame: Physiology and Biology, "sugar was being refined. It was regarded, however, as a rare delicacy. Today, we accept the presence of sugar as commonplace."

And it's been killing us softly with its sweet song, artificial and otherwise, ever since.


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