The publication of a new animal study on aspartame last month has - as expected -sparked yet another bout of head butting from the two opposing sides of the debate. But it also highlights a bigger issue: one of transparency.
The problem we are facing today with aspartame is a result of all parties not laying all of their cards on the table. And as we have seen before, this will lead us nowhere but useless cyclical discussions. It is also proving damaging by raising doubts both on the intentions of industry and the credibility of science foundations. The issue is so laden with controversy that it has blood boiling and fingers pointing. But unfortunately, in such situations there is no progress to be made, and progress is what we desperately need, above all else. Aspartame, a high intensity sweetener marketed under brands such as Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel, was first discovered in 1965. But because of initial cancer concerns, it was not approved for use in dry goods until the early 1980s. Over the next score of years, its use slowly expanded to beverages and other food products, until all restrictions for its use were removed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1996. Although industry now keenly points to over 200 studies that prove its safety, aspartame has not fully rid itself of the black spot tainting its image. Two years after one of the world's few comprehensive cancer-testing programs, the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF), published its first study linking aspartame to cancer, the foundation last month again flagged up the dreaded link. And this second study has - again - resulted in a whirlwind of comment and controversy. Seen against the background of an overwhelming body of information on aspartame that led to it being approved, the new study is but a hiccup. Yet it is a hiccup that cannot be discounted. The problem is that there is nothing to hint that this study will not face the same fate - essentially being dismissed - as its predecessor, published by ERF in 2005. That first Ramazzini study was what essentially rekindled the aspartame debate. Concerns mounted, media reported, consumers feared, regulatory bodies acted. Both FDA in the US, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) across the Atlantic re-asserted their evaluations of aspartame's safety after reviewing the ERF data. EFSA was fairly transparent in its review, describing the process it followed and publishing a 44-page opinion by its scientific review panel. FDA was less open. It published only a press release re-affirming its position on the ingredient's safety, but added that it was unable to review all relevant data. The reason is that ERF was also not transparent. It provided regulators with substantial additional data amounting to a 900-page report. But it kept its pathology slides to itself, proposing instead, it claims, a collaboration with FDA to "accelerate the elaboration and acceleration" of future aspartame data. The foundation was under no obligation to provide all data - its job is to conduct the science, explain the results and get these published. But at the same time, regulatory agencies can only review what they have in front of them. By keeping data to itself - a legal right - the foundation is only damaging its own reputation by placing its credibility into question. Who is the baddie? Is there a baddie? Or are people just butting heads? The blunt reality is that - unsurprisingly - it all comes down to a question of economics. Studies of this sort cost millions of dollars. Funding is a sore point, for both government and independent science bodies. And industry-funded science is always viewed with suspicion. According to Dr Angelika Tritscher, who heads up WHO's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), this funding catch 22 results in less chance of completely pure science and subjective research. But even if a shadow of doubt hangs over new science, this is absolutely indispensable in cases such as aspartame. As a publication, we are not in a position to judge one way or another on the science and safety surrounding this controversial ingredient. Nor are any industry organizations or advocacy groups. The solid evidence comes only from scientific truth, and in the case of aspartame, all we are seeing are scientific opinions. Although Ramazzini stands alone in the sea of science, it has raised a flag, suggesting that though there may be no cause for panic, there is certainly cause for questioning. What we need is constructive, collaborative debate, more science and - above all - transparency. Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France.
If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com