Aspartame and “academic chill out”

Posted on May 15, 2013



I am not sure whether this has come up before in any of my blog posts, but I am a member of the Charity “Sense about Science”, and occasionally work with them. They are, as stated on their website (link) a “Charitable trust that equips people to make sense of science and evidence on issues that matter to society”.  I would say that is a very good aim and they are a very active organisation. Unfortunately, I guess, they are forced to be an active organisation because let’s face it, the science and health sections of “newspapers” like the Sun, the Daily Mail and others here in the UK are pretty abysmal (although entertaining…).

obama picking his nose 1………...I am sorry to go slightly off-topic  here, but when looking at today’s health section of The Sun I found the following treasure chest, entitled “Nose picking habit is snot so bad” (link). So apparently, and I take this as the truth since it is in the news: “Scott Napper, associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, believes eating mucus in the nose may boost the immune system by introducing small and harmless amounts of germs back in to the body.” There is equally useful information about gossiping (20 minutes chatting about other people helps 96% of people squash feelings of stress for up to four hours straight. That’s very specific…), biting your nails (boosts our immune system by training its memory), burping (suppressing this can cause problems), cracking your knuckles (no negative side effects as commonly assumed), and chewing gum (boosts short and long-term memory, might help slim you down and protects your teeth).………

Anyhow, Sense about Science is doing important work (here, just to make sure you didn’t miss it, is their link again).

I didn’t know the also had a special program for early career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science, called Voices of Young Scientists (VoYS). I guess I didn’t know about this since, unfortunately, I don’t think I qualify any more…but nonetheless, a very good initiative.  There is more information here if you are interested.


A recent email pointed me to the VoYS most recent campaign against negative claims (link). They are calling supermarkets to put evidence at the heart of their policies and asked them for evidence behind claims and policies such as ‘no GM’, ‘no parabens’ and ‘no MSG’. What it comes down to is that, according the accompanying website: “VoYS accuses the supermarkets of playing on unfounded fears about health effects from GM, MSG, parabens and aspartame.”

One of their members considered this so important that she (not sure whether this is with others, but I tend to think so) wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Science blog (link). I thought I’d just copy-paste it below to save you the trouble of finding it:


Supermarkets cash in on unfounded fears about food and health

Products that are marketed as being free from GM, aspartame, MSG and parabens perpetuate myths and ignore evidence

We have all found ourselves standing in a supermarket aisle, staring at packets and cans, struggling to choose between different versions of the same thing: Do I choose the product that is “free from artificial sweetener” or has “no MSG”? What about the one that “contains no GM” or is “paraben-free”?

But these are false choices: supermarkets are misinforming their customers about health risks. There is no scientific evidence to support rumours about adverse health effects from the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), or from foods containing material from plants that were genetically modified, or from the sweetener aspartame, or from parabens, which are used to preserve toiletries.

By marketing products as “free from” supermarkets are playing on people’s fears, which are based on the rumours that have circulated about these substances.

Frustrated by this cynical marketing, a group of junior researchers that I coordinate (the Voice of Young Science network) wrote an open letter calling on supermarkets to stop misleading customers and review their negative claim policies.

We had asked the supermarkets to give their reasons for marketing products as “free from”. Without exception, the supermarkets that responded provided no evidence for any negative health effects. Instead, they told us their policies are a response to customer concerns. For example Marks & Spencer responded: “The reason why we decided as a business to remove GM ingredients from our foods was due to our customer concerns.”

This puts the blame on the customer … but how on earth are people supposed to work out which health concerns are well founded, and which are not, if supermarkets arbitrarily exploit health fears as a sales tool? Customers who would be better off reducing their salt and sugar intake to help prevent heart disease and obesity – significant public health issues – are instead wasting effort worrying about MSG and aspartame.

While scientists are working hard to get sound science and evidence into public discussion about food risks, and science journalists now stop much of the worst media reporting of unfounded scare and miracle stories, the supermarkets are busy promoting these unfounded fears to thousands of customers every day, undoing all that good work. When supermarkets promote the idea that MSG-free or paraben-free products are a good thing, they are helping to drive this misinformation.

There is no justification for consumers’ worries about these substances. Take aspartame. Before any low-calorie sweetener is approved for use in food and beverages in the UK, the science supporting its safety is thoroughly reviewed. All of the low-calorie sweeteners approved for use, including aspartame, have been shown to be safe.

What about MSG? Research has shown it to be safe and that there is no need to set an upper limit on intake. Suspected adverse reactions and allergies to MSG have been investigated, including by the Scientific Committee on Food (the predecessor of European Food Standards Agency). There are people who claim to be sensitive to MSG, but in studies where these individuals are given MSG or a placebo no link between MSG and a reaction has been found.

And yet the supermarkets provide a choice between a product with, and a product without these substances. Supermarkets are effectively telling customers they would benefit in some way from choosing the “free-from” version, which reinforces any existing but unfounded concern. Supermarkets are shirking their responsibility to inform their customers and this needs to change.

Perhaps supermarkets don’t realise the scale of the effect they have on customer opinion. When it comes to public misunderstanding of GM, for example, supermarkets have contributed to widespread public distrust. GM-free supermarket products imply that GM is “weird science”, even though the European Commission has found no evidence of higher risk of negative health outcomes from GM food compared with conventional food in any of the research it has funded.

Negative marketing by supermarkets based on unsubstantiated concerns exploits people’s attempts to choose healthy products, even pushing them towards alternatives that may not be good for them. It undermines our efforts to help people make sense of stories about food. Products and policies based on evidence are vital to give customers a real, informed choice. Supermarkets need to promote evidence not unfounded fears.

I don’t know that much about the topic, but I thought I’d have a closer look at the aspartame questions. Just out of interest, so you may consider this a snapshot amateur’s insight. According to VoYS documentation on evidence (link) the absence of any risk is based on a major review by the Scientific Committee on Food in December 2002, which basically indicated that with normal (or reasonable expected) consumption of aspartame the dose of aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol was negligible. Moreover, it helps consumption of loads of real sugar making the overall diet healthier (good to know, but essentially irrelevant for the question if aspartame is a health problem or not). The controversy about whether it causes adverse health effects or not is outlined by wikipedia itself here.

The internet is a rich source of great websites making me wonder how it was possible I was still alive. More specifically for aspartame, entertain yourself here, here. I decided to go for better evidence and did a quick PubMed scan of publications since 2002 to see if anything may have changed since this review (I only looked at aspartame and cancer). It seems that new epidemiological evidence is ambiguous (link) or does not show an increased cancer risk (ref 1, ref 2) while some animal studies do (ref). Interesting…

The epidemiological evidence seems to me to suffer from the same problem that studies on the carcinogenic effects of mobile phones have, and which would favour negative results. Any excess cancer risks, if they exist, are likely to be small or it would have been easy to pick up health risks when aspartame was first tested and introduced to the market; Errors in exposure, or dose assessment for all the people in these studies must be very large, especially for a chronic disease with long latency such as cancer; and finally, like the use of mobile phones: where does one find any unexposed controls? I for example, do not use sugar so have no need to replace it in my coffee or diet, but I am pretty sure many food products I buy probably contain sweeteners like aspartame.  Surely any people not getting exposed to any aspartame (or without mobile phones) nowadays have other characteristics that set them apart from the majority of the population?

What seemed to have been an important study (important in a sense that it generated many comments) was a 2007 study by Soffritti et al. (link) that, based on a study in six groups of 62-122 mice, concluded that “APM is a carcinogenic agent in multiple sites in rodents, and that this effect is induced in two species, rats (males and females) and mice (males). No carcinogenic effects were observed in female mice.” I am going to leave this for what it is, assuming that if you are really interested you will check out the paper yourself. As I said this generated some heat, and I am just going to point you to a letter by Bernadene Magnuson published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2008 pointing out in great detail why the interpretation of the results by Soffritti and co-workers was wrong. Again, I don’t know much about mice experiments so if you want to know more have a look at her letter here (link).

A recent Daily Mail article (so it must be true) recently covered the issue by quoting a Professor Millstone from Susex University in relation to a recent review of the European Food Safety Authority  here.

At this point I think it is only fair to point out that aspartame is considered a  medium priorities for 2010-2014 International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO-IARC) Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (link), so there is still some scientific work to be done. Voices of Young Scientists may have just been a little to black ‘n white…

sugar_on_spoonHowever, let’s assume that consumption of aspartame does not cause any, or because of the epidemiological points I mentioned above at most very small or negligible excess health risk.  Let’s also assume that the enormous industry behind sweeteners (or mobile phone technology to remain with the analogy) and the billions of dollars (no judgement made, I picked a random currency) involved with a decision on health risks, or absence thereof, had no impact on decisions about the likelihood of it actually being a carcinogen. What remains is that there is still some concern amongst some people that it may be unhealthy, and in the absence of the perfect study this is likely to remain. What then is the problem of labelling these foods accordingly in a supermarket??

The supermarkets response to the letter was that they merely responded to what consumers wanted. It doesn’t happen that often that I find myself on the same side as supermarkets, but in this situation I do. What really is the issue with labelling foods such that people who are looking for those products can easily find them? Should we really wait until we have 100% conclusive evidence for everything we write down or do, especially when it most likely doesn’t make a difference? Are supermarkets really misinforming customers about unproven health risks? Unless the labels state that this is the ‘healthy section of the supermarket’ in addition to just labelling it ‘aspartame-free’ I don’t really think they do…

Food is labelled as ‘organic’ or ‘biological’ for a number of reasons, one of them that people have claimed it is healthier (I personally doubt this claim, but that is irrelevant here), and this makes it easy to find in the supermarket for those customers who are looking for it. Similarly, I am not a vegetarian, but if I was I would find it very helpful that this is labelled accordingly when I am doing my shopping. None of these products have any 100% proven benefits or adverse impacts on health either, so if I have decided I do not want aspartame, or genetically modified foods, wouldn’t it just be easier if these were labelled accordingly?

Given all the nonsense that is published on a daily basis by the tabloids here in the UK (or incidentally, Fox News in the US) I am sure there are better and more important battles to pick. Of course I am no expert in the matter, and would be happy to have people point out to me why I am wrong (or right), but I would say, Voices of Young Scientists, that this is really a situation of “Chill out…”


Posted in: Public Health