Aspartame is one of the most
commonly used sweeteners in diet food and drinks. It
There is popular concern about its carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects. As a result, many people prefer sugar instead. The first experimental evidence that aspartame was carcinogenic came from a study published by Soffritti in 2006 (which can be read here). A second study published in 2007 (here), by the same author, demonstrated that the risk of cancer, as a result of aspartame consumption can start during foetal life.
Despite these two papers, there appears to be very little real cause for concern.
Aspartame and the Law
Both the American Food and Drug association (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approve food and drink products with aspartame in it. Both organisations would be required, by law, to revoke its approval if aspartame was carcinogenic. The EFSA report from 2006, in response to the study by Soffritti (2006) can be read here.
Aspartame and Cancer Risk
Since then, a large number of reviews have been conducted to investigate the evidence for the carcinogenic effects of aspartame. A meta-analysis of these reviews was prepared by Mallikarjun et al (here) and the results are summarised below:
- The first study involved 1 control group and 4 treatment groups of Sprague-Dawley rats. The rats in the 4 treatment groups were given 1000, 2000, 4000 and 8000 ppm (parts per million), respectively, of aspartame feed per day. The study found no evidence that aspartame is linked to cancer development.
- Another study involving 1 control group and 2 treatment groups of Sprague-Dawley rats also found no evidence
- A third study conducted on another breed of mice, involving 1 control group and 3 treatment groups, found no indication for an association between cancer and aspartame consumption
An important conclusion was:
“Based on the current body of scientific evidence, Aspartame consumed at any dose level has no significant relationship with cancer (occurrence of malignant tumours)”
The meta-analysis did report 3 studies that indicated a link between cancer and aspartame consumption.
- One of these studies consisted of one control group and 5 treatment groups of Sprague-Dawley rats. In each of the 5 treatment groups, the rats were given 80, 400, 2,000, 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 ppm of aspartame, respectively
- A second study involving one control group and 4 treatment groups found aspartame was carcinogenic in male mice but no so in female mice
- The third study demonstrated that aspartame is carcinogenic. When consumed during foetal life, its carcinogenic effects increase
Although there is no certainty in science, especially as there is no evidence for the carcinogenic effects of aspartame in humans (due to a lack of studies), it would seem that aspartame-based products are highly unlikely to cause cancer.
Aspartame and Obesity
Having said this, however, one should not be fooled that aspartame has no health-related risks. A systematic review of the metabolic effects of aspartame indicated that there is a positive correlation between sweetener consumption (most commonly in the form of diet drinks) and weight gain(read here). However, the evidence for cause-and-effect is minimal.
Aspartame May Increase the Risk of Diabetes
Additionally, a recent study published in 2014 by Suez et al. of the Weizmann Institute of Science (here) suggests that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can cause glucose intolerance in the gut of mice, and possibly in humans . This is due to a change in the gut bacteria. Thus, ironically, the chemical substitute for sugar could in fact be contributing to the diabetes epidemic.
The study did have a major limitation. Although it demonstrated a link between artificial sweetener use and metabolic dysfunction, this was done so in a cross-sectional study design. This means that all the data was collected at a specific point in time, rather than being collected over a period of time. As such, it was not possible to identify if consumption of sweeteners was the cause or consequence of developing metabolic disorder.
Should I Use Aspartame in My Diet?
Although there is limited evidence to suggest aspartame consumption has long-term negative effects on health, we would still advise that you avoid having too much of it. It is always better, if you are unsure about the health implications of certain foods, to stick to natural food products such as fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, nuts and cereals.
People with bowel symptoms, particularly those with irritable bowel syndrome, can have significant difficulty with finding the right foods to eat. Our expert dieticians at the London Gastroenterology Centre will provide helpful advice. Please call to make an appointment.