Video: Is Aspartame a Hazard?

Watch Neal Fortin's 5.5 minute video on recent reports of the possible hazards of consuming aspartame.

Text reads

Aspartame in the News

Watch this 5-minute video by Neal Fortin, Director of MSU's Institute for Food Laws and Regulations, as he discusses recent reports on aspartame, or read the transcript below.



Have you heard something in the news recently about aspartame being a hazard? Are you wondering if you should give up your favorite soft drinks? In this Sweet Science Showdown, we'll get to the bottom of that can of soda.

At its most basic: risk = hazard x exposure.

Lightning is a hazard but with no exposure, there's no risk. Similarly, when you're standing on a beach, a shark in the water is a hazard but the shark presents no risk as long as you're on the beach.

The 16th century chemist Paracelsus noted the dose makes the poison. Even table salt will kill you if you consume too much. If you drink two gallons of water all at once it can kill you. The dose makes the poison.

In one of the studies used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the researchers gave rats about 400 times the amount of aspartame that you might eat. Even then the results were not conclusive.

The dose makes the poison. Drinking one pint of water is fine, drinking 400 pints all at once will kill you.

Another way to think about hazard is like dancing in the rain without an umbrella. It is fun, but is it hazardous? Some say that dancing in the rain might pose a hazard for catching a cold. Your grandmother might have told you not to go out in the rain without a raincoat because you might catch a cold. If Grandma saw a possible association between children getting wet in the rain and catching colds, Grandma might conclude that getting soaked in the rain is a possible hazard for catching a cold. However, colds are caused by viruses, so the rain cannot possibly cause a cold. Nevertheless, maybe Grandma saw something in the association. Perhaps small children already catching a cold like the feel of cold rain on their skin. The rain isn't causing the cold but could be possibly associated with getting wet in the rain. That is, the start of a cold might increase the chance of getting wet in the rain rather than the other way around. It's called reverse causality.

In addition to reverse causality, studies of association based on history of consumption are especially difficult and prone to confounding factors. It's hard to rule out the consumption of other ingredients and other social, economic and lifestyle factors that can also be a true cause and are hard to filter out. For example, diabetics are more likely to drink diet soda, but diet soda doesn't cause the diabetes.

Fear not, diet soda lovers because here's where it gets interesting… Enter, the joint FAO/WHO expert committee on food additives (JECFA). JECFA looks at the exposure part of the equation, the “how likely?” Unlike IARC, JECFA looks at both hazard and risk. For risk, we must consider exposure. Imagine again that you’re dancing in the rain but this time you have your umbrella. JECFA found that the amount of aspartame we consume in our daily lives doesn't put us at any risk. It's like having your umbrella against the rain. Moreover, JECFA looked at the studies and concluded that it was impossible to establish a link between aspartame and cancer at any level of consumption, and no other health effects at any level. JECFA did not say they disagree with IARC on their conclusion, however JECFA avoided mentioning inconclusive possibilities and simply concluded that it was impossible to establish a link to cancer or other hazards, or any other adverse effect. On the other hand, FDA did disagree with IARC’s conclusion of possible carcinogen. I think FDA’s disagreement is rooted in how the public understands designation of possible hazard as meaning there really is a risk or at least credible evidence of a risk.

In summary, IARC found limited and inconclusive evidence of hazard so concluded that hazard was possible. On the other hand, FDA and JECFA found limited and inconclusive studies with many shortcomings. Therefore, both FDA and JECFA found no conclusion of hazard is possible. In addition, both FDA and JECFA found that there was no risk at the levels of exposure from consumption.

So, what's the takeaway from this scientific tango? Aspartame in moderation can sweeten up our lives without causing harm. Like dancing in the rain and catching a cold, there's no evidence of cancer risks from exposure to aspartame in food.

Remember knowledge is the ultimate sweetener so whether you choose to sing in the rain or stick to your umbrella, make informed choices that keep you dancing through life.

Stay curious, stay sweet and stay informed. Until next time, this is your host of the Sweet Science Showdown, signing off.


Learn more about topics like this in MSU IFLR's online graduate courses. Our courses are developed for food industry professionals and deliver the information you need to navigate today's regulatory environment.
Contact for more information.

Did you find this article useful?

Other Articles in this Series