by Marion Nestle
Sep 12 2007

The Aspartame Controversy: Will it Never End?

I’ve just gotten a notice that a big study in Critical Reviews in Toxicology gives aspartame a clean bill of health; the reviewers judge it safe at current levels of intake and find “no credible scientific basis” to think otherwise. This comment refers to contrary studies first published a year or so ago and confirmed again this summer by an Italian group (see their paper in Environmental Health Perspectives). This group claims that aspartame causes cancer in rats when consumed at levels typical of those in soft drinks. The Critical Reviews analysis is the most recent of many other such studies discounting the methods and opinions of aspartame critics. Will this latest study–at long last–put the matter to rest? I doubt it. The Critical Reviews analysis was funded by the maker of aspartame, Ajinomoto. Even though its authors were not told this, and the sponsor was not involved in the review, the study gives the appearance of conflict of interest. This kind of sponsorship is not helpful. My own view (which I discuss in detail in What to Eat) is that aspartame probably is safe at current levels of intake. But so what? It is an artificial sweetener. I don’t like anything artificial when it comes to food and I much prefer sugar (in moderation, of course).

  • Nope, Marion, it probably won’t ever end. More often people believe what they want to believe which is why all the studies don’t put the issue to rest.

    Like you, I don’t really want to consume much artificial stuff. But sugar (not just table sugar, either) is not good in the quantities that most people consume it either. You say moderation, but I don’t think people have any idea what moderation really is when it comes to sugar. It’s not until one actively tries to avoid sugars that it is so apparent how ubiquitous it is in the Western, and especially North American diet. So they rely on artificial sweeteners to keep the sweet tastes coming. I try to keep the sweet tastes to the minimum, no matter what the sweet ingredient. It is challenging at times (especially in shorter daylight seasons when sweet cravings increase), but well worth the effort both in the short and long run.

    I would like to see more attention on the negative aspects of sugars, too. There is more to sugars’ bad side side than weight gain and tooth decay. Far more. Too much sugar negatively affects the bones & teeth from the inside (interferes with proper mineralization), suppresses immune the immune system, wreaks havoc on energy levels and mood. There is even substantial evidence that sugar is involved in cancers (perhaps part of that immunosuppression).

  • Jenn

    Hi Marion,
    Since you’re talking about sugar, I wonder if you could explain the difference between different types of natural sugars. For example, I see organic evaporated cane juice in a lot of the products at the health food stores, as well as packages of the less refined cane sugars. Could you comment on whether or not these are preferrable to the typical granulated white sugar? Thanks!

  • From a biochemical standpoint, sugars are sugars. The organic types are grown without artificial pesticides and fertilizers. I rather like the less processed ones but that’s because of taste. Hope that helps.

  • Jenn

    Thanks for the response, Marion. I do prefer the less processed varities, even if they are not necessarily healthier. Whatever the form, I appreciate seeing products with real sugar rather than HFCS!

    P.S. I am really enjoying (but fuming over) “Food Politics”.

  • scott

    safe enough to consume at current levels, such as those allowed by soft drink manufactures? the human body is resilient enough to ward off the effects of prolonged exposure to various toxins and poisons, but everybody’s body is different and some may suffer not at all, yet others may suffer greatly. in the brief span of human history, manufactured sweeteners have existed hardly at all, compared with the diet of our earliest ancestors.compared with the diet of humans even a hundred years ago, mankind was eating foods largely unassociated with the industrial bottom, we have aspartame, devised in a chem. lab and transported through various ethical, moral,legal and political hurdles by the rank and file good ol’ boys club in washington. the very history of this product is rife with shady money being shifted and the oiled hands of the few getting greased again. naturally, at the expense of a large majority made up of you me us most of the population of this country. and american industry took this product abroad, to the world. our planet never made aspartame. it does not flow from rivers, grow on trees, or beat a grasshoppers wings.

  • Hello Marion,

    As long as consumers continue to purchase products with aspartame and money is to be made from it I am afraid the controversy is a long way from over but I do believe it will end, more and more people are starting to catch on that aspartame may not be the best thing for you.

    I just wrote a new article that you and your readers may be interested in Aspartame – Don’t “Dew” It.

    Yours in Health,

    – Dr M

  • stephen fox

    Dear Dr. Nestle:

    Please share with friends and colleagues:

    UK Supermarket Chain Bans Aspartame From Own-Label Products; Japanese Manufacturer Ajinomoto Sues!

    Can this company be so stupid? World’s largest manufactuer of two neurotoxic carcinogens, Aspartame & MSG, should accept responsibility for causing spike in Neurodegenerative Illnesses: Tumors, MS, ALS, Migraines, Seizures, all recognized by USA FDA

    Source: New Millennium Fine Art
    May 13, 2008

    Please share this with your friends, colleagues, and family. You are welcome to repost this anywhere and everywhere. We are not given to false starts, but this story shows a way, in due course, for the world to get rid of aspartame once and for all….a major tactical blunder on the part of the world’s largest manufacturer of this poison. This Japanese corporation ought to get some kind of aware for Stupidity, Corporate Hubris, and Idiotic Product Pride!

    I look forward to your reply, particularly if you might like to help get at least a Resolution passed in your state legislature asking the FDA
    Commissioner to rescind the FDA approval for Aspartame, this deadly neurotoxic and carcinogenic artificial sweetener. Further, each state Attorney General could help to develop and participate in suits like the Tobacco suits in the 1990’s against the Aspartame Manufacturers.

    Thank You.

    Stephen Fox, Managing Editor, Santa Fe Sun News
    Founder, New Millennium Fine Art, Santa Fe Gallery since 1980

  • It TASTES poisonous. That’s a good enough reason as far as I’m concerned for not allowing it in non-dietetic food.

  • Rebe

    Aspartame is terrible. A much better alternative to sugar is Stevia. It’s natural and it’ very sweet, but it doesn’t spike your blood sugar.

  • Aspartame, once the exclusive product of Monsanto, at temperatures of 86 degrees or more converts to methyl alcohol, then to formaldehyde, then to formic acid.
    Methyl alcohol is toxic to humans causing blindness and death. Formaldehyde is toxic to humans, and should never be ingested. Formic acid is a potent neurotoxin, and is toxic to humans too.
    Aspartame has been blamed for Gulf War Syndrome, as trucks of the diet soda were shipped overseas, their cargoes not refrigerated, and soldiers consumed the beverages.
    Some believe that if you open a container of diet cola and you allow it to breath for a few minutes, that the methyl alcohol will magically dissipate harmlessly into the air. I don’t believe I would like to take that chance, since formaldehyde and formic acid would still be present.
    There are numerous personal testimonies you can read about illnesses in people such as diabetes and Muscular Sclerosis, that have been reversed when the patient stopped consuming Aspartame.
    The connection between the toxic effects of consuming Aspartame with human illness came from a physician who started his career in the 1930’s. In the ’30’s a lot of illegal alcohol was being distilled in the mountains because of prohibition (a law banning alcohol in the US). He recognized the symptoms of methanol poisoning, he had once seen in people in that long ago era, who were drinking alcohol contaminated with methyl alcohol from liquor stills. When aspartame containing beverages were tested, he found methanol. Bingo.

  • david

    To Dr Cousino, those findings were not actual findings but were part of an internet hoax and is now an urban legend. Even critics of artificial sweeteners really don’t have any the claims of your post.