Aspartame, new alert on sweetener added even in potato chips

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Aspartame is again raising alarm. A new study points out its liver toxicity, while restrictions on its consumption are being called for at the Europarliament to protect the health of the population. Considered a threat for at least a decade, the most debated synthetic sweetener remains widely used by industry, according to our market survey.

Aspartame, the new study

The latest evidence on aspartame toxicity emerges from a study by a team of Spanish and Portuguese researchers, published in the journal Biology in late January 2021. The sweetener was administered to guinea pigs for 12 weeks at twice the rate (80 mg/kg/day) of that considered safe for humans (40 mg/kg/day). The treatment caused oxidative stress, inflammation and liver damage in guinea pigs. (1)

Researchers delve into the mechanisms related to aspartame’s adverse effects on liver tissue, adding further scientific insights to the body of literature indicating its harmfulness. And they conclude that, in light of the evidence,‘its intake should come under caution.’

Suspected of harm since 1973

Aspartame is considered dangerous by a large part of the scientific community. As early as 1973, at the time of the first application in the US, a group of independent scientists objected that the synthetic sweetener could cause mental retardation, brain injury and neuroendocrine disorders. Since then, numerous researches have indicated its dangerousness. Most recently, a July 2019 study showed harmful effects of it even on the microbiome of pregnant women and infants (2).

Despite so much adverse literature, the controversial sweetener was acquitted by the toxicology assessment conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2013. At the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg per kg of body weight, the molecule would pose no risk, according to theAuthority.

EFSA under attack for opinion on aspartame

The EFSA opinion was sharply criticized in a 7/15/19 publication signed by Professor Erik Millstone and Dr. Elisabeth Dawson, British experts in nutrition and health policy. In the study, the two researchers blatantly accuse the EuropeanAuthority of distorting reality by unreasonably excluding the sweetener-averse literature in the preparation of the opinion. (3) (EFSA, as we know, does not conduct its own studies, but bases its opinions on analysis of existing scientific literature and data also provided by industry).

In the same scientific journal, Archives of Public Health, followed on 2.4.20 a ‘defensive’ editorial by EFSA, rejecting the accusation of bias in the evaluation of the studies, claiming that it also considered some studies unfavorable to the sweetener to be reliable. (4)

Uncomfortable questions

The dispute between EFSA and British researchers revived on 9.11.2020 with a new publication by the Millstone-Dawson duo. (5) The researchers request to desecrate the list of studies considered by EFSA to formulate the opinion on aspartame. And they ask: If indeed the evidence on the toxicity of the sweetener has been examined, why haven’t restrictions been placed on its consumption?

The clash in the scientific community is also echoed in the Europarliament. On 12.1.21, a four-signature parliamentary question asked the European Commission to shed light on the actions of EFSA (acting on behalf of the EU Executive) regarding the aspartameaffair. And to inform whether, in light of the evidence, it intends to use the precautionary principle and ban or limit the spread of this molecule in food. (6)

Aspartame, where it is found

The European Commission’s (written) response is still awaited. Meanwhile, aspartame continues to circulate, especially in products that are enemies of a balanced diet as well as superfluous and uneducational for younger people.

Upon a quick market survey, we found the controversial sweetener in a dozen products:

– French fries (Lay’s country recipe),

– carbonated soft drink (Fanta, Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, Red Bull),

– fruit drinks (Rauch pineapple juice),

chewing gum (Daygum, Brooklyn, Mentos),

– ‘Sugar-free’ mints and candies (Ricola, Frisk, Mentos).

As always, while waiting for definitive clarification, consumers can adopt the world’s most effective precautionary principle: leave products with suspect ingredients on the shelf.

Marta Strinati

Cover image: Ferreira, Paulo & Pereira Freire, Joilane. (2020). Aspectos Translacionais da Toxicodinâmica de Aditivos Alimentares. ISBN 978-65-86002-97-3. doi: 10.22533/at.ed.973200904

Notes

(1) Finamor, I.A.; Bressan, C.A.; Torres-Cuevas, I.; Rius-Pérez, S.; da Veiga, M.; Rocha, M.I.; Pavanato, M.A.; Pérez, S. Long-Term Aspartame Administration Leads to Fibrosis, Inflammasome Activation, and Gluconeogenesis Impairment in the Liver of Mice. Biology 2021, 10, 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology10020082

(2) Camilla Fincardi, Dario Dongo. Intensive sweeteners, microbiome, and health risks. Scientific study. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade) 1.3.20 https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/dolcificanti-intensivi-microbioma-e-rischi-per-la-salute-studio-scientifico

(3) Marta Strinati. Aspartame (E951) should be withdrawn from the market, the verdict of a British study. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade) 23.7.19 https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/l-aspartame-e951-va-ritirato-dal-mercato-il-verdetto-di-uno-studio-inglese

See also Millstone, E.P., Dawson, E. EFSA’s toxicological assessment of aspartame: was it even-handedly trying to identify possible unreliable positives and unreliable negatives? Arch Public Health 77, 34 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-019-0355-z

(4) Kass, G.E.N., Lodi, F. Letter to the editor regarding the article ‘EFSA’s toxicological assessment of aspartame: was it even-handedly trying to identify possible unreliable positives and unreliable negatives?’ . Arch Public Health 78, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-020-0395-4

(5) Millstone and Dawson. Why did EFSA not reduce its ADI for aspartame or recommend its use should no longer be permitted? Archives of Public Health (2020) 78:112 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-020-00489-w

(6) Michèle Rivasi (Verts/ALE), Sarah Wiener (Verts/ALE), Jutta Paulus (Verts/ALE), Bronis Ropė (Verts/ALE). Bias in EFSA’s toxicological assessment of aspartame. Question for written answer E-000135/2021 to the Commission Rule 138 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2021-000135_EN.html

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".