Can aspartame cause cancer? For decades, aspartame has been at the center of one of the biggest controversies faced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the health and food industries it regulates. The popular FDA-approved artificial sweetener has been linked to cancer and labeled toxic in numerous studies. The FDA has continued to maintain its approval of the use of the sweetener in foods. In fact, aspartame is approved in over 100 countries and no regulatory authority has deemed it unsafe.
Aspartame Myths vs Reality
Nonetheless, the world’s most popular sugar substitute, commanding over 50 percent of the high intensity sweetener (HIS) market, is suffering from the negative publicity. Studies continue to link aspartame with not only cancers – including breast cancer, brain tumors, leukemia and lymphoma – but also neurological diseases. In response to the bad publicity, the leading producer of aspartame, Japanese company Ajinomoto, has changed the name of the artificial sweetener to AminoSweet.
Most of us know aspartame by its leading brand names, NutraSweet and Equal. In soft drinks and other food products, aspartame is a low-cost, tasteless sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It contains an equivalent amount of calories as sugar, but due to the small amount of this high intensity sweetener required, it is considered to be a low- or no-calorie sweetener.
Cancer in Rats
Since its FDA approval in the mid-1970s, a number of studies on rats have linked aspartame and cancer. In defense, researchers have been accused of using faulty research methods, such as giving rats doses of aspartame that are 100 times higher than those taken by humans. In 2005, the Italian Ramazzini Foundation study concluded that cancer formed in rats that were fed a lower level of aspartame than the daily allowable intake (DAI). The FDA has established the allowable daily intake of aspartame at 50mgm/kgm body weight.
For its parts, the FDA claims that no other food product has been the subject of such intense and comprehensive research. The US’s chief food ingredient regulator refers to over 100 studies performed on humans and animals. The FDA’s stance is backed by a number of respected researchers.
A new form of regulatory pressure is being placed on both the FDA and makers of aspartame. Following Europe and Canada’s lead, US health groups are calling for the type of artificial sweetener to appear on labels on food items. In many countries, including the US, the label on products with aspartame must state that the food product contains phenylalanine, one of the two amino acids that make up aspartame. Phenylalanine is toxic to those with phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited disorder that prohibits the processing of the protein phenylalanine.
A second Ramazzini study was conducted in 2007 to simulate daily human intake of aspartame. The FDA has followed the European and Canadian regulators in highlighting flaws with the Ramazzini studies and stating it has no plans to change its approval of aspartame. Meanwhile, the natural sweetener industry is seizing the opportunity and slowly gaining market share.