By Sean Poulter
Amid health fears, Diet Coke sweetener in safety spotlight
An artificial sweetener used in Diet Coke is to undergo an urgent EU safety review.
Aspartame is ingested every day by millions of people around the world in more than 6,000 well-known brands of food, drink and medicine.
However, it has been the subject of a number of studies that appear to show harmful effects on human health.
One recent study linked diet drinks containing aspartame to premature births, while another suggested it could cause cancer.
To date, health watchdogs, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), have ruled out any link to ill-health.
But after several MEPs asked for a new investigation following pressure from European health campaigners, EU Commission officials have now asked the EFSA to bring forward a review that had been planned for 2020.
The concern about artificial sweeteners such as aspartame relates to the fact that they contain methanol, a nerve toxin which can be metabolised in the body to form two more nerve toxins: formic acid and formaldehyde, the chemical used to preserve dead bodies.
Earlier this year, experts on Britain’s Committee on Toxicity(CoT) ruled that ‘long-term exposure to methanol consumed through food, including from aspartame, is unlikely to be harmful to health’.
The committee pointed out that methanol is also found in fruit and vegetables.
As a result of the experts’ conclusions, the FSA ruled the consumption of aspartame ‘is not of concern at the current levels of use’.
Despite this verdict, the FSA is currently recruiting volunteers for an investigation into anecdotal reports of ill health, including headaches and stomach upsets, associated with aspartame.
The watchdog announced the research project in 2009, however it has had difficulties recruiting volunteers who claim to suffer problems.
EFSA spokesman, Lucia De Luca, said: ‘Aspartame is one of hundreds of flavourings. It is on the market because it has been assessed in the past and considered safe.
‘We have received an official request for a complete re-evaluation of the safety of aspartame.
‘The re-evaluation is scheduled for 2020 but the Commission asked us to do this re-evaluation now in the light of recent events.
A study last year of 60,000 mothers-to be found a correlation between the amount of diet drink consumed and an early birth
‘In the past year, there have been a couple of studies looking at aspartame and concerns expressed by consumer groups and others.’
In July last year, EU-funded research by Danish scientists, which looked at almost 60,000 mothers-to-be, found a correlation between the amount of diet drink consumed and an early birth.
Previously, the Independent Ramazzini Foundation in Italy has published research suggesting aspartame caused several types of cancer in rats at doses very close to the current acceptable daily intake for humans.
Both of these have been evaluated by EFSA experts, who have rejected any risk to human health.
Aspartame is manufactured by Ajinomoto Sweeteners Europe. The firm said it welcomes the decision to bring forward the safety evaluation.
A spokesman said: ‘EFSA reaffirmed the safety of aspartame in 2006, 2009 and 2010. In addition, recent allegations about the safety of aspartame made in France and by a handful of MEPs have already been dismissed by EFSA.
‘This review of the extensive body of science on aspartame will provide additional confirmation of the ingredient’s safety.
‘By providing an excellent sweet taste, aspartame makes a useful contribution to a healthy, calorie-controlled diet and can help people to avoid overweight and obesity, and their associated diseases.’