According to results of a study with over 3,000 participants published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, the new study supports the safety profile of the sweeteners, including aspartame, in the Italian population.
The use of sweeteners in food and beverage products is widespread and has gathered yet more pace as food firms seek to deliver healthier products, with less sugar, to consumers. According to Leatherhead International, the global market for sweeteners was worth US$1.83bn in 2007.
Although all the sweeteners used in the EU have been approved and are deemed safe by the food safety authorities, internet forums, newspaper reports and some scientific literature continue to garner suspicion.
After saccharin, aspartame is the second most used artificial sweetener in the world. The sweetener has been the subject of cancer claim and counter-claim, particularly in Europe, following publication of findings by scientists from the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) that there was a link between the ingredient and cancer in rats (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007).
In response to the ERF’s reports the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources said there is no indication that aspartame causes cancer following its assessment of a study that linked regular intake of the sweetener with increased risk of certain cancers.
Adding to this are the new results of Cristina Bosetti from the Institue of Pharmaological Research "Mario Negri" in Milan and her co-workers. The Italian scientists performed case-control studies between 1991 and 2004. Data on sweetener consumption, which labelled participants as either users or non-users, was obtained from 230 people with stomach cancer, and 547 healthy controls, 326 people with pancreatic cancer, and 652 healthy controls, and 454 people with endometrial cancer, and 908 health controls.
After adjusting their results for various confounding factors, the researchers state that users of sweeteners were not at an increased risk of any of the cancers. Furthermore, when they divided sweetener use into saccharin and other sweeteners, which is mainly aspartame, none of the results suggested a significant increase in any of the cancer forms.
While the results are promising for sweetener users, it is noted that the study was only based in Italy, and therefore generalisation to other populations is not possible. Additionally, the study was limited to only three types of cancer. Indeed, the earlier findings of the ERF study reported increased risk of leukaemia, lymphomas and breast cancer, none of which were considered by Bosetti and her co-workers.
On the other hand, a US study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute involving 285,079 men and 188,905 women, ages 50 to 69, found no statistically significant link between aspartame consumption and leukaemia, lymphomas or brain tumours (Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006, Vol. 15, pp. 1654-1659).
Furthermore, a review published in 2007 in Critical Reviews in Toxicology (Vol. 37, pp. 629-727) concluded that suggestions of adverse effects had 'no credible scientific basis'. The review was conduced by a panel of eight experts over an 11 month period. It considered over 500 studies, articles and reports conducted over the last 25 years - including work that was not published, but that was submitted to government bodies as part of the regulatory approvals process.
Source: Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention
2009, Volume 18, Issue 8, Pages 2235-2238, doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-09-0365
"Artificial Sweeteners and the Risk of Gastric, Pancreatic, and Endometrial Cancers in Italy"
Authors: C. Bosetti, S. Gallus, R. Talamini, M. Montella, S. Franceschi, E. Negri, C. La Vecchia