Aspartame Safety Concerns

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

In response to research published by Italian scientists that suggests that the artificial sweetener aspartame can cause cancer, the U.S. consumer organization Center for Science in the Public Interest requested an urgent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review of the product's safety in June 2007.

Aspartame, which has been on the U.S. market since 1981, is composed primarily of two common amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Each of these is also a building block for conventional foods such as protein and natural flavor molecules. Before its FDA approval, the safety of aspartame was tested in over 100 scientific studies. These studies were carried out in both humans and laboratory animals and included studies of rats that were fed aspartame in doses greater than 100 times the amount that humans would normally consume.

The data that sparked the controversy were from a report by researchers at the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) in Bologna, Italy, published in 2005. The scientists carried out tests of over 4,000 rats that regularly consumed high doses of aspartame and were allowed to live until they died naturally. Scientists from ERF concluded from their study that aspartame causes cancer and that current uses and consumption of the sweetener should be reevaluated.