The European Food Safety Authority is reviewing "as a matter of high priority"
the results of a large new study into aspartame, the artificial sweetener consumed
by millions of people worldwide and used in more than 6,000 food and drink products.
Researchers at the Ramazzini Institute for cancer research in Italy say their
study shows that aspartame causes lymphomas and leukaemia in female laboratory
animals "at doses very close to the acceptable daily intake for humans".
The authors of the study also say that while rats fed aspartame ate less food,
there was no difference in body weight between treated and untreated animals.
One of the largest manufacturers of aspartame, the Japanese multinational Ajinomoto
said the allegations made by the Italian study were "not consistent with
the extensive body of scientific research which already exists on aspartame".
It questioned the methods used and the record of the institute. It pointed to
four previous studies into the carcinogenicity of aspartame that had found no
relationship between aspartame and any form of cancer. It added that aspartame
broke down in the body into the building blocks of protein that occur widely in
the rest of food.
It also helped people reduce their calorie intake. This contribution to cutting
obesity helped to prevent cancer, a spokesman said.
The Ramazzini Institute has sent its first results to the European Food Safety
Authority. EFSA confirmed yesterday that it would be asking its expert scientific
panel on food additives to review the results "as a matter of high priority,
in the context of the previous extensive safety data available on aspartame".
EFSA added that until that review had taken place it did not have a basis for
recommending that consumers change their diet in respect of aspartame.
Although it had been presented with an outline of the findings by the institute
in June, it is still waiting for the full pathology reports from the researchers.
The review will also take into account all the other studies and data available.
"This will probably take several months," an EFSA statement said.
The institute said the full data would be published in six weeks' time. Aspartame
is widely used to sweeten chewing gum, soft drinks, yoghurts and desserts and
other low-calorie foods, and medicines including syrups and antibiotics for
Aspartame has been authorised for use in foods for a long time in many countries
but has "a controversial history", according to EFSA. Since its approval,
the safety of aspartame and its breakdown products has been widely discussed
in the press and among scientists. "Up to now aspartame has been considered
safe, based on the studies available."
The new study was conducted on 1,800 rats during their full lifespan. Six different
dose levels were tested against a control group. The institute said the study,
which is to appear in its own publication, the European Journal of Oncology,
had been peer-reviewed by seven international experts "in anticipation
Ajinomoto said it welcomed the decision by EFSA to review the claim made by
the Ramazzini Institute objectively.