by Marion Nestle
Nov 25 2011

Is aspartame safe? You decide.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the agency that rules on health claims and food safety, is reviewing the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame.  It has just released the 112 studies it reviewed in the 1980s along with hundreds of studies submitted more recently.  Its re-evaluation is expected in 2012.

Despite many complaints to the contrary, the FDA has consistently ruled that aspartame is safe at levels currently consumed.  With release of the EFSA studies, people concerned about this issue can review the data and draw their own conclusions.

It will be interesting to see EFSA’s review when it appears.

  • I would not be surprised if it remained in the market place.

    The more recent evidence still needs strengthening, despite reviews suggesting it affects memory and the taste of sweetness but lack of calories induces over corrective consumption of food.

    And then there is the lobby money to overcome….

  • Anthro

    Some people will not change their views in spite of overwhelming evidence put before them. It’s apparently a psychological phenomenon. This results in such things as climate change denial. Preconceived notions, especially when instilled at an early age, are difficult to overcome–even with the most diligent application of reason. Science fights an uphill battle against “belief”.

    A lot of people will read the evidence and then simply say there is something wrong with the evidence rather than “decide” in favor of the evidence. It is true that not all evidence is created equally, but when the PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE says that the earth is round and some people still say that it isn’t, you have to wonder.

    Having said that, just because aspartame is safe to consume doesn’t mean I like the (after) taste of it, or that I think it’s a good idea to continue to condition one’s taste buds to require sweetness.

  • Thank you, Marion Nestle for calling attention to this extremely important issue. We need more conscientious Journalist like you to ask the hard questions about Aspartame sweeteners.

    In the 1950s, ads in peer-reviewed journal, JAMA proudly proclaimed: ‘More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Brand.’ At one time, the now-debunked theory (espoused by many supposedly-intelligent-at-the-time-humans), that the planet earth was flat, was an undisputed fact. Just because we think we are so superior and highly-evolved with our science at this time does not mean we are unequivocally correct. Add billions of dollars at stake for the gigantic sweetener industry, and you may begin to have a tiny glimmer of understanding about the futility of asking any governmental agency anywhere in the world to go against the USFDA in asking for a recall and retesting of Aspartame as a drug, as our Aspartame Consumer Safety Network and Pilot Hotline all-volunteer organization has consistently done since 1987. This is a campaign that will be won or lost at the checkout stand. If consumers cease to use a product, whether for safety or lack of effectiveness, it will be history. It took decades for smoking to be declared an issue of gravest importance. Aspartame was approved in 1981. Do the math. — Mary Nash Stoddard/author Deadly Deception Story of Aspartame

  • Margeretrc

    @Anthro, “Some people will not change their views in spite of overwhelming evidence put before them.” Aren’t you the one that insists all fat is bad–there is no good fat and we should eat as little as possible? Hmmm. Unlike you, I did change my view–drastically–regarding natural fat in the diet when confronted with overwhelming evidence–several years ago. As far as Aspartame is concerned, I’m willing to grant that it’s been around long enough that, if there were serious negative effects, they would have come to light by now. I certainly don’t think it causes cancer or brain tumors or anything like that. However, I do not consume it as I do not like its effect on me. The first time I drank a beverage sweetened with it–when it first came out, I got light headed and dizzy. At the time I knew nothing of the controversy surrounding its approval ( or all the stuff circulating around the internet about it. I only knew it was associated with some negative effects on me, albeit minor, temporary ones. I’ve repeated the experiment a few times since then, with the same result. Perhaps I’m allergic. Don’t know, don’t care, as there are other calorie free ways for me to sweeten my food–if/when I so desire–without the undesirable effects that Aspartame has on me. Everyone is free to make up his/her own mind, however, and I’m willing to grant that it’s quite possible aspartame is safe for most people–in the quantities normally consumed. Because that’s what the body of evidence available seems to indicates, and I am not married to any preconceived notions.

  • The EFSA already in 2006 had another look at aspartame – in the wake of the joke that was the Ramazzini study – and reviewed more than 500 studies on aspartame and cancer (PDF):

  • Anthro


    I’d love to see some references for your “overwhelming evidence”. Really.

    I have not said that ALL fat is BAD. I have only said that it must be consumed sparingly and as a percentage of total calories.

    Any experience of an individual is just that–one person’s experience. It may be interesting, but it has little value in making public health recommendations. I’m happy to hear that you are maintaining an open mind in spite of your personal experience with aspartame. As I said, I can’t stand the taste of it myself–but that’s different from the safety issue, as you note.

    @Mary Nash Stoddard

    Yes, science is never finished, but that does not mean that something that is well-studied is wrong just because something that was previously taken for granted turned out to be bad once it was studied. You are mixing apples and oranges.

  • Margeretrc

    @Anthro, Was it not you who said “we have to get away from the idea that there is good fat. There isn’t…”? If not, I apologize. As to evidence, is not the fact that we as a species thrived for 99% + of our existence eating a significant portion of our calories as fat evidence enough? That if it weren’t for the meat and fat in our diets, we would probably not have evolved the large, intelligent brains that we have? Or that it is a necessary part of every cell membrane, the brain, and other structures, not to mention an excellent source of energy? Or that many cultures thrive–without high rates of heart disease or obesity–eating a large percentage of their calories as fat–The French, for just one example, though there are others, some of whom consume as much as 65% and up of their calories as fat? More to the point, the evidence against consuming fat (or for limiting consumption, as you say, to some artificially derived small percentage of the diet) is underwhelming at most. I believe the burden of proof is on you and others who insist that fat should be “consumed sparingly.” Most people who consume fat sparingly consume far too many calories from sugar and/or starches, a much more serious threat to health than natural fats. I highly recommend Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” He’s been researching the “soft” science of dietary fat for over 10 years and does an admirable job of laying out the evidence (or lack thereof) much better than I can. Also Uffe Ravnskov’s “Fat and Cholesterol are Good for You.” Both books provide an enormous list of references. The war against fat and cholesterol in the diet is misguided at best, and has done great harm at worst.

  • Benboom

    I second “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. I’d also add “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis. The idea that there are no good fats strikes me as particularly fundamentalist, an attitude I appreciate on this blog (normally) because of its absence.

  • Well I admit I am a little biased. I am a sugar cane producer. This being said it appears that like almost everything consumption of aspartame in moderation is ok. But if you are going to consume in moderation why not use all natural sugar.


  • Joe

    So the Europeans have once and for all solved the question as to whether water is suitable for hydration in the human body and now it has turned attention to aspartame. What next?

    I tend to agree with discussion that surmises that science has become a parody of itself. Science chases the dollars and the headlines. It does so by focusing in on specific foods like sugar and fat stretching and contorting to show links between these things and poor health. And sure enough in a small percentage of a large population some people are affected by too much fat and sugar. But what is largely ignored are the larger portions of any population who are not affected by such things.

    Why are those otherwise healthy people ignored? No money or fame to be had proving what everone can see is true.

  • Aspartame is indeed 11% methanol (wood alcohol), which the human body quickly turns into formaldehyde via the ADH enzyme, concentrated in many tissues: liver, kidney, brain, retina, skin, muscle, lung, prostate, breast, womb, fetus — forming cumulative micro lesions and a wide variety of symptoms, and binding to and disabling DNA, RNA, and proteins.

    Other methanol (formaldehyde) sources include wood and tobacco smoke, dark wines and liquors, fruits and vegetables heated in sealed metal and glass containers, and aspartame, as well as a variety of products ranging from medicines to new carpet, drapes, and furniture to mobile homes.

    People vary enormously in individual vulnerability.

    Folic acid can protect many people.

    Prof. (retired) Woodrow C. Monte

    Amid health fears, Diet Coke sweetener [aspartame] in safety
    spotlight, Sean Poulter, UK Daily Mail 2011.05.27, 141 comments:
    Rich Murray 2011.05.30

    aspartame water in rats for 6 months causes liver harm, RH Nair et al,
    Mahatma Gandhi U, Food Chem Toxicol 2011.03.02: Rich Murray 2011.03.12

    Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Mar 2. [Epub ahead of print]
    Effect of long term intake of aspartame on antioxidant defense status in liver.
    Abhilash M, Paul MV, Varghese MV, Nair RH.
    School of Biosciences, Mahatma Gandhi University,
    Kottayam, Kerala, India, 686560.,,

    careful expert lifetime study on mice shows liver and lung cancers
    from aspartame, M Soffritti et al, Ramazzini Institute, Italy, checked
    by US National Toxicology Program experts, confirms many previous
    studies from 2001 on: Rich Murray 2011.02.27

    re GC Ebers study, females harmed more by body making methanol into
    formaldehyde in brain via ADH enzyme: 589 references, WC Monte,
    retired Prof. Nutrition: Rich Murray 2011.01.08

    aspartame abstinance cures fibromyalgia chronic pain in 2 French
    adults: R Ciappuccini et al, Clin Exp Rheumatol 2010 Nov: Rich Murray 2010.02.19

    formaldehyde from 0.2 mg daily methanol from aspartame in Singulair (montelukast) chewable asthma medicine causes severe allergic dermatitis in boy, SE Jacob et al, Pediatric Dermatology 2009 Nov: Rich Murray 2010.09.27

    Rich Murray, MA
    Boston University Graduate School 1967 psychology,
    BS MIT 1964, history and physics,
    1943 Otowi Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
    Skype audio, video rich.murray11 new primary archive
    group with 118 members, 1,625 posts in a public archive
    group with 1226 members, 24,342 posts in a public archive

    brief — Fwd: Aspartame Submission from Prof. Woodrow C. Monte to EFSA: While Science Sleeps: A Sweetener Kills 241 p — Ch 12 Autism and other Birth Defects 26 p — 740 references full pdfs: Rich Murray 2011.11.17

    Download Chapter 12 of the book “While Science Sleeps”

    A compelling must read full of shocking facts

  • Benboom

    Troll in the dungeon! Thought you’d like to know! (Thanks, Harry Potter)

  • Jean

    It seems that everything depends on what your definition of “is” is. (Sound familiar?)

  • Aspartame “must be consumed sparingly”????????? you got to be kidding!!!! I would feel very stupid if I spend MY money buying something that I do not need in the first place…even if someone offers this “chemical” for free.. No thanks!!!!! The sweetness of fruits taste like heaven today!

  • In regards to aspartame safety, I am a dietitian in Europe and here is what has happened: The European Commission asked EFSA to reevaluate aspartame because they were worried about 2 new studies: 1 linking aspartame to preterm labor and 1 study on carcinogenicity. EFSA had insisted a few months earlier that there was no reason to reconsider the safety of aspartame due to these 2 studies but yet they decided to look at them more in depth a few months later, which makes me wonder: did they not look at them in-depth the first time around? In any case members of the European Parliament want warning labels on products containing aspartame about aspartame consumption in pregnancy. I have written about this here: a Greek nutrition blog, that talks about eu food regulations, labeling, food industry etc. It is Greek but you can translate using google.

  • Andrew

    IF we leave out individuals with PKU(who shouldn’t be consuming aspartame and if they do, that is their own fault), then the focus seems to go to the methyl ester that aspartame has. Yes, aspartame is 11% methanol by weight, but that isn’t the whole story. 10ul of pure MeOH is required for an acute toxic event. That would require someone to consume over 400 cans(141L) of aspartame sweetened soda to get that much MeOH. That is impossible. People also disregard the fact that MeOH occurs in many food products at higher levels. Tomato juice being a prime example(there are limitless products that contain MeOH). MeOH in TJ is more than 6x higher than in soda and I don’t see anyone demanding that tomato juice be removed from the market.

  • Courtney

    Bit doesn’t the naturally occurring methanol (in fruits and vegetables) have ethanol to counteract it? I was under the impression that methanol and ethanol are supposed to go together, but aspartame does not contain ethanol.