The Ecologist (Sept., 2005)
September 15, 2005


The story of aspartame is the story of the triumph of corporate might
over scientific rigour. It shines a spotlight on the archaic and
unbalanced procedure for approving food additives.

We ingest food additives daily, yet their approval does not require
the same scientific thoroughness as drug approval; and, unlike drugs,
there is no requirement for surveillance of adverse effects that crop
up once the additive is in use.

Approval does not involve looking at what people are already eating
and whether the proposed substance will interact with other additives.
Nor does it take into account whether the additive exacerbates damage
caused by other aspects of the modern lifestyle (for instance, the
neurological damage caused by pesticide ingestion or exposure). Nor
does it look for subtle chronic effects (for instance, the gradual
build-up of methanol in the body with regular aspartame ingestion).

There are other problems. Most studies into aspartame are animal
studies, which are notoriously difficult to relate to humans. So why
bother performing them in the first place? The answer is,
manufacturers and regulators use animal research as a double-edged
sword. If an animal study reveals no evidence of harm, the
manufacturer can use it to support its case. If it reveals harm,
however, the manufacturer is free to flip-flop into the argument that
the results of animal studies are inconclusive in relation to humans.
Faced with inconclusive evidence regulators will always err on the
side of the manufacturer, who has after all demonstrated proper
bureaucratic procedure by funding and submitting its animal tests for

The approval process for any substance that humans put in their mouths
on a daily basis should be based on solid human data and on the
precautionary principle when such data is not available. But, as it
stands, the regulation of food additives in the US, the UK and
elsewhere leaves the burden of proof of harm on average people,
despite the fact that most of us are either too detached or too timid
to complain or simply don't have the energy to take on multinational

The history of aspartame is all the more remarkable because of the
number of motivated people who have refused to accept the mantra 'if
it's approved by the government it must be safe'. Nearly every piece
of independent research shows the outrage of these people, who have
had to withstand threats of litigation and being vilified in the media
as 'hysterics', is justified.

After 30 years of aspartame's commercial success, it would be easy to
conclude it is too late to act. And yet earlier this year hundreds of
products were swept off supermarket shelves on the chance that they
might have contained minuscule amounts of a potentially carcinogenic
dye, Sudan 1. No studies existed to show that Sudan 1 could cause
cancer in humans. The likelihood of any one person's exposure to Sudan
1 being high enough to produce a tumour was minute. Nevertheless, on
the basis of the precautionary principle, action was taken.

Aspartame is not a life-saving drug. It is not even a very effective
diet aid, as shown by widespread obesity in the West. Until the many
concerns about it have been examined in 'corporate-neutral', large-
scale, long-term, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled human
trials (the gold standard of scientific proof) it should be taken out
of our food.

Source: The Ecologist Vol. 35 No. 7 (Sept. 2005) , pg. 49.

Copyright The Ecologist 2005