WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A review of 500 studies conducted over a quarter century has turned up no credible evidence that the widely used artificial sweetener aspartame is unsafe, industry-funded research released on Tuesday showed.
A panel of American, British and Dutch experts rejected the notion that aspartame causes cancer, seizures, neurological damage or learning problems, or contributes to obesity. The panel did conclude that some people might be prone to headaches after consuming it.
The group did not conduct original research but assessed existing studies on the safety of aspartame, first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1981. It is widely used in diet soft drinks and sold in packets for use in coffee, tea or on food.
The panel found consumption of it increasing, but said it was safe even among the heaviest users, whether adults or children.
“Controlled and thorough scientific studies confirm aspartame’s safety and find no credible link between consumption of aspartame at levels found in the human diet and conditions related to the nervous system and behavior, nor any other symptom or illness,” the researchers said in a paper published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology.
“There is no credible evidence that aspartame is carcinogenic,” they added.
Since its approval, some people have argued that aspartame can cause a variety of illnesses, and various Web sites such as www.sweetpoison.com denounce the sweetener.
The researchers rejected the findings of a study published in June by Italian scientists that showed aspartame might cause leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer in rats. University of Maryland food and nutrition professor Bernadene Magnuson said that study was undermined by “numerous methodological and interpretation errors.”
After the Italian study was published, the FDA said it had no reason to alter its conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general-purpose sweetener.
Magnuson said one possible area of concern was research indicating some may get headaches after consuming aspartame.
“We found conflicting results in those studies, with some showing no effect and others (that) did have some effect, suggesting that there may be a small subset of the population with some sensitivity to aspartame-induced headaches,” Magnuson said.
Over the past 11 months, the panel weighed more than 500 human and animal studies, articles and reports on health effects of aspartame performed in the past 25 years, including unpublished research given to the FDA and U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
“Certainly it is one of the most studied compounds ever,” panel chairman Dr. William Waddell of the University of Louisville told reporters, saying the panel’s 98-page report should put to rest safety concerns relating to aspartame.
The panel’s work was funded by Japanese food and seasonings giant Ajinomoto Co, a maker of aspartame. Magnuson said the company had no control over who was on the panel or how their work was done, and panel members did not know who was funding the work until it was done.
“I have no qualms in terms of who funded the study,” Magnuson told reporters. “It was completely free for the panelists to make whatever conclusions they had.”
Aspartame, developed by the G.D. Searle company, is used in more than 6,000 food products worldwide. Merisant Co is another leading aspartame company, with the brands Equal, Canderel and NutraSweet.