Aspartame, first discovered in 1965 by the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, is an artificial sweetener marketed by Ajinomoto Sweeteners under trademark names including Nutrasweet, Equal and Canderel. After saccharin, aspartame is the commonest sweetener, consumed by over 200 million people worldwide, and represents about 60 percent of the artificial sweetener market.
Aspartame provides food, soft drinks, candy and chewing gum manufacturers with substantial cost savings compared to sugar, which is 200 times less sweet. Aspartame is a low calorie, which helps people control their weight. It is also used in vitamins and pharmaceuticals, including syrups and antibiotics for children.
In January 1976, then Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Schmidt testified before Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) that Hazleton Laboratories, under contract to Searle, had been charged with falsifying toxicological data on the sweetener.
The FDA subsequently convened a Public Board of Inquiry to review concerns on aspartame's carcinogenic effects in experimental animals. In 1980, the Board concluded that aspartame could "contribute to the development brain tumors." The FDA then recommended that, pending confirmation of these findings, this sweetener should no longer be used.
In 2006, based on highly sensitive and life long feeding tests in groups of about 200 rats and at doses less than usual human dietary levels, the prestigious Italian Ramazzini Foundation confirmed that aspartame is unequivocally carcinogenic. A high incidence of cancers was induced in multiple organs, including lymph glands, brain and kidney.
Not surprisingly, these findings have been sharply challenged by the sweetener industry, major sweetener users, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Monsanto, and also by the industry oriented scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology. Other critics included Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Defense Secretary, and earlier CEO of Searle.
This evidence on the carcinogenicity of aspartame was strongly reinforced in a unique 2007 feeding test, based on maternal feeding of rats in early pregnancy, resulting in their lifelong exposure to aspartame, beginning in fetal life. This resulted in a still higher increase in the incidence of cancers at sites including those previously reported. In April 2007, the results of this study were presented by Ramazzini scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.
Under the explicit provisions of the 1958 Delaney Law, which requires an automatic ban on carcinogenic food additives, it is anticipated that Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the newly appointed FDA Commissioner and inspiring public health advocate, will promptly ban the continued use of aspartame.
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is Professor emeritus of Environmental & Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; and author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer, including the groundbreaking 1979 The Politics of Cancer, and the 2009 Toxic Beauty.