Study Linking Aspartame to Cancer Risk Deemed "Weak"

Aspartame made headlines this week when a new study found a correlation between drinking diet soda and an increased risk of leukemia, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other blood-related cancers. However, the Harvard hospital that promoted the research later apologized for bringing increased attention to "weak science."

The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was originally promoted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), a Harvard teaching facility with a press release titled, “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.”

But hours before the article went live online the hospital released a new statement.

“Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work,” wrote Erin McDonough, senior vice president of communications at BWH.

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Study Investigation and Vague Results 

These researchers were following in the footsteps of a long-term 2005 Italian study that found more lymphomas and leukemias in rats fed high doses of aspartame. The FDA and European Food Safety Authority found shortcomings in the study and—because most studies involving animal and humans at the time found no problems with aspartame—said the sweetener was not cause for concern in a 2006 statement.

The new study led by epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer and her team at BWH used records of more than 77,000 women and 47,000 men in the nurses and health professional’s study, one of the largest and longest investigations of factors that influence women’s health.

They concluded the possibility of a detrimental effect of diet soda on select cancers, but their results differed between men and women. They also found a risk for people who drank sugared sodas, saying further studies are needed.

“Epidemiological studies only show association; they never prove cause and effect,” said Dennis Bier, editor of the journal.

He said this paper was accepted in the same manner as every other article that gets published with outside peer reviewers.

“I do think this finding is strong enough to justify further study on aspartame and cancer risk,” said Harvard’s Walter Willet, a co-author of the study and member of the editorial board of the ACJN in an NPR story.

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Aspartame's Controversial History

Aspartame, best known as NutraSweet and Equal commonly used to sweeten everything from diet sodas to yogurt, is no stranger to controversy.

The FDA approved this sugar substitute for limited food uses in 1981. By 1995 the FDA’s Epidemiology Branch chief reported aspartame complaints constituted 75 percent of all FDA reports concerning adverse reactions to food, according to Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D. in Get the Sugar Out.

In 1996 it gained approval as a general sweetener, but that same year 60 Minutes reported criticisms of the approval process stating, “aspartame’s approval was one of the most contested in FDA history.”

That report used research published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology showing possible links between drinking diet soda and developing brain tumors.

In an analysis of peer-reviewed medical literature Dr. Ralph G. Walton, a professor at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, found that all industry-funded studies said aspartame was safe, according to a 2006 New York Times article. In independent studies, 92 percent identified one or more problems with aspartame, Walton reported.

“Here in the US, we allow these ingredients into our food supply until they are proven dangerous,” said Robyn O’Brien, a former food industry analyst and author of The Unhealthy Truth. “In light of the fact that the President's Cancer Panel reports that 41 percent of us are expected to get cancer in our lifetimes and the burden that disease in placing on our economy, perhaps it is time to exercise precaution.” 

Still, aspartame is one of the most studied food additives on the market.

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FDA Releases New Statement

“FDA's conclusions about the safety of aspartame are based on a detailed review of a large body of evidence, including more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies,” said a statement from the FDA this week. “Although this study raises issues that need to be further investigated, FDA finds no reason to alter its previous conclusion about the safety of aspartame." 

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