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."
hours before the article went live online the hospital released a new
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."