Aspartame safety fears disputed by sweetener association

By James Ridler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Scientists at the University of Sussex have criticised EFSA's 2013 review into the safety of aspartame
Scientists at the University of Sussex have criticised EFSA's 2013 review into the safety of aspartame

Related tags: Ingredients & nutrition

New research that suggested artificial sweetener aspartame is not safe for human consumption has been disputed by members of the industry.

The research, written by Professor Erik Millstone and Dr Elisabeth Dawson at the University of Sussex, claimed that the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) 2013 review of the sweetener was seriously flawed and had discounted 73 studies that indicated the ingredient could be harmful.

The International Sweeteners Association (ISA) defended EFSA’s 2013 review of aspartame, which concluded that the sweetener was not a safety concern.

“The EFSA Opinion on aspartame represents the most comprehensive assessment of the aspartame safety database that has ever been undertaken, examined by leading scientists from across Europe,”​ said the ISA.

“Based on those data, EFSA’s experts could rule out any potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes or to the brain. Additionally, a recent UK Government-funded study on self-reported aspartame sensitivity, concluded that ‘there was no evidence of any acute adverse responses to aspartame’.”

Suspension of authorisation for aspartame  

Millstone and Dawson’s report called for the suspension of authorisation to sell or use aspartame in the EU, pending an independent and thorough re-examination of evidence. This would include documents that he claimed were omitted from the 2013 review. 

“If the benchmarks the panel used to evaluate the results of reassuring studies had been consistently used to evaluate the results of studies that provided evidence that aspartame may be unsafe, then they would have been obliged to conclude there was sufficient evidence to indicate aspartame is not acceptably safe,”​ Millstone concluded.

Millstone criticised EFSA’s failure to acknowledge “numerous inadequacies”​ in studies that promoted the safety of aspartame and instead chose to pick up on “tiny imperfections”​ in all the studies providing evidence that the sweetener was unsafe.

 “In my opinion, based on this research, the question of whether commercial conflicts of interest may have affected the panel’s report can never be adequately ruled out, because all meetings all took place behind closed doors,”​ he added.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, and author of The Diet Myth, ​agreed that the general level of scrutiny of food additives was inadequate and relied on 50-year-old science “mostly performed by the manufacturers”.

Expert calls for more research

“We need to know more about long-term effects on humans, especially for substances likely to be consumed every day for life,”​ said Spector. “No one has adequately explored the role of aspartame in altering the gut microbiome, which wasn’t considered in 2013 and is now known to be key for our health.”

City University of London professor of food policy Tim Lang called the research important and timely, especially at a time when a growing number of manufacturers were reformulating products to contain less sugar.

“The global health advice is to reduce sugar intake, yet much of the food industry – especially soft drinks – maintains the sweetness by substituting artificial sweeteners,”​ said Lang. “Millstone and Dawson help expose that strategy for what it is, a continued sweetening of the world’s diet.

 “The healthy strategy is surely to tackle the cultural reinforcement of sweetness and to encourage fewer sweet foods and drinks, full stop. Surely, we now argue: reduce both sugar and artificial alternatives.”

Meanwhile, with the threat of taxation hanging over their heads, manufacturers are scrambling to meet sugar and calorie reduction targets,​ but with consumers looking for cleaner labels, there is no easy route to reformulation.

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