Aspartame sparks methanol row at food forum

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

EFSA's aspartame opinion was debated at a House of Commons event
EFSA's aspartame opinion was debated at a House of Commons event

Related tags House of lords Aspartame Efsa

Experts have rubbished claims that the methanol content in aspartame threatens consumer health, following the publication of a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment.

Speaking at an All Party Parliamentary Food and Health forum at the House of Commons yesterday (December 10), Dr George Kass, deputy head of EU Food Ingredients and Packaging at EFSA said: “The amount of methanol coming from aspartame is a fraction of what is produced naturally by the body.”​ 

He explained that the three components making aspartame (aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol), which occur widely in the diet in greater amounts than attributed to aspartame, were completely digested by the body. 

EFSA opinion also noted that exposure to methanol from natural food occurrence is a minor contributing source at less than 10%. “The panel noted that for average consumers of aspartame, the contribution from aspartame to the overall exposure of methanol ranged from 1% to 10% in the general population.”​ 

‘Aspartame brings nothing new to diet’​ 

Ailbhe Fallon, consultant for Ajinomoto, which distributes aspartame, backed the EFSA panel opinion and said: “Aspartame brings nothing new to our diet and methanol is methanol is methanol. Our bodies produce far more methanol than comes from aspartame. Our exposure to methanol is partly from our food and methanol coming from aspartame is probably less than 10%.”​ 

Fallon and Kass were responding to comments made by co-founder of the UK Aspartame Awareness Campaign (UKAAC), Jim McDonald, who criticised EFSA’s position. 

McDonald told EFSA’s risk assessment had “condemned the public to another 10 years of methanol consumption”.​ 

He said the opinion, which concluded that aspartame posed no threat to consumers if consumed at the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40mg/kg body weight per day (bw/day), was wrong. 

Lethal for humans​ 

He added that tests carried out by the UKAAC observed levels of methanol in rats consuming aspartame that were lethal for humans. As a result he recommended the ADI for aspartame be lowered to 1.14mg/kg, 35 times lower than EFSA recommendation. 

The debate prompted Anthony Colwyn, Member of the House of Lords, to point out the lack of clarity surrounding aspartame from the public’s perspective. He said he was “muddled”​ about aspartame and whether it was dangerous or not. 

“It’s a massive question and should be resolved. I’m suggesting that, as you went through the detail I did not understand, so I suppose the public find it difficult.” ​ 

He said aspartame was either harmful or not and “one of you has to be wrong”.

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Methanol is a strictly human poison

Posted by Professor Woodrow C. Monte,

I present details of methanol toxicity on my website

I have been publishing in this area for over 30 years.

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Look at the evidence

Posted by Jim Mcdonald,

Dear Mr Poole, To read the "very narrow viewpoint" of the lobbying group. Please read the minutes of the meeting, which will appear on the website of the "Parliamentary Food and Health Forum" to be available shortly,

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It couldn't be clearer

Posted by Jon Poole - IFST Chief Executive,

I think that it is a great shame if Anthony Colwyn takes from this that the debate has left the public 'muddled'. It is, as he said, a massive question but EFSA's conclusions provide much needed clarity over aspartame and IFST fully supports this outcome. Any suggestion of a lack of clarity seems to have come about due to a very narrow viewpoint of one lobbying group. It would be a great pity if this single viewpoint was given as much weight as the sound scientific evidence.

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