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The Controversy Over Aspartame Sweetener

Updated on June 28, 2011

Is It Safe?

It’s hard for the average person to figure out who is telling the truth in the hotly debated controversy over aspartame, an artificial sweetener sold under trade names such as NutraSweet and Equal. The FDA has concluded the product is safe for human consumption while others claim it is a serious health hazard.

To find the truth one has to pore over fine print and wade through mountains of information. For instance, the synthetic makeup of aspartame is comprised of 50 percent phenylalanine, 40 percent aspartic acid and 10 percent methanol. Phenylalanine is a chemical that, when found in excess in the brain, can cause mental retardation or death.

The key words here being “in excess”. Even in larger amounts of intake aspartame has been found to be well below FDA recommendations. Based on government research and recommendations from advisory committees, aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by more than ninety countries worldwide.

Or is it? The FDA first approved aspartame in 1974, but the approval was rescinded due to concerns about brain tumors in lab animals. The controversy over aspartame originated in questionable results in the aspartame approval process during the 1970s and early 1980s. Allegations of conflicts of interest also arose about those approving it.

New FDA Director

After a change in administration in 1981, President Reagan appointed a new FDA director, and it was approved as a food additive. The FDA director who approved the chemical later accepted a job at the advertising firm representing the drug company that discovered aspartame. One has to ask who profits in this situation.

FDA officials report aspartame as "one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved" and its safety as "clear cut". Scientific evidence reveals aspartame is safe as a non-nutritive sweetener.

Falsified Reports?

Accusations in the mid-1970s claimed the manufacturer of aspartame falsified studies by removing tumors from test rats and documenting rats as survivors. Maybe a coincidence, but the occurrence of brain tumors rose by 10 percent between 1973 and 1990. For those over 65 years it rose 67 percent. However, no evidence has been shown linking these results with the product. Is it possible the tumors could be related to something else entirely?

Allegations of conflicts of interest were also levied against aspartame producer G. D. Searle claiming safety data had been withheld. In 1996, the controversy reached a higher climax when televisions’ “60 minutes” reported on concerns aspartame could cause brain tumors. About the same time, an anti-aspartame activist wrote about the subject under a pen name, fostering a catalyst for hoax chain letters which wound up saturating the Internet.

Searle submitted 168 studies, including 7 on animals considered crucial by the FDA. After reviewing the claims the Department of Justice instituted grand jury proceedings against Searle for fraud. In December 1975, the FDA placed aspartame approval on temporary hold, for further investigation.

During 1977 and 1978, the FDA and a panel of academic pathologists reviewed 15 of Searle’s studies and concluded, although minor inconsistencies were found, they would not have affected the studies' conclusions. In 1980, a Public Board of Inquiry disagreed with claims aspartame could cause brain damage, including in the developing fetus, but also determined the matter still needed further study. This decision provided fertile grounds on which conspiracy theories began to grow. These theories have created several Internet conspiracy theory and urban legend websites.

An elaborate hoax spread across the internet attributing many harmful medical effects to aspartame. This theory claimed FDA approval process of aspartame was falsified and attributes its source as an email referring to a supposed talk by a "Nancy Markle" at a "World Environmental Conference."

The dissemination of the Markle letter was so popular one version of it was featured in a tutorial on how to determine the credibility of a web page. The tutorial implied the Markle letter was not credible. Although most allegations contradicted medical evidence, this misinformation has spread around the globe as chain e-mails.

Aspartame has been exhaustively studied with research including animal studies, clinical research and after marketing observation. It has been one of the most meticulously tested food ingredients. Comprehensive review articles and independent evaluations by governmental regulatory organizations have analyzed research on aspartame and found it safe. Aspartame has been deemed harmless for human consumption by over 100 regulatory agencies in various countries.

The artificial sweetener has also been used as a means for controlling weight. Contradicting this claim, a few individual studies have suggested aspartame may be a factor in weight gain and obesity as well as increasing hunger. However, thorough reviews have concluded there is little to no data to support this assertion.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      8 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      As the 1st paragraph indicated, it's hard to know who is correct. New studies come out saying it's harmful and another one comes along saying it isn't. Thanks for your input J. T.

    • profile image

      J.T. Waldron 

      8 years ago

      Here is a link to a pdf of the most recent aspartame cancer study:

      And here is an abstract:

      (By the way, Soffritti conducted three long-term studies in recent years and all three studies showed a causal relationship between aspartame and cancer).

      Many studies with dubious funding sources (Anjinamoto, Searle, Merisont, etc.) will attest to the safety of aspartame. Non-industry funded studies are found in this link:


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