Aspartame is commonly used in diet and low calorie food products, including soft drinks and chewing gums. It has been permitted for use in Europe since the 1980s.
Although some studies have suggested possible adverse effects, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has scrutinised the methodology and findings of safety studies and has repeatedly reaffirmed its positive safety opinion. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is 40 mg/kg bw/day, and a 2002 opinion from the Scientific Committee on Food held that this level is unlikely to be exceeded.
Despite the authorities’ confidence, aspartame is one of the most controversial sweeteners, and some people believe consuming it causes them ill effects such as headaches, vision loss, memory loss or gastrointestinal problems.
The Advisory Forum of EFSA asked for a review by national experts of the available information on aspartame, a view on the completeness of data, and options to address any data gaps or discrepancies.
The national experts looked at exposure data, brain function, satiation and appetite, allergenicity and immunotoxicity, metabolic aspects and diabetes, carcinogenicity and genotoxicity. They also took into account efforts to analyse anecdotal case data on possible adverse effects of aspartame.
While no new evidence that would call for a new opinion to be drawn up, the experts identified a few areas where more research would be of interest.
For instance, they found that the biological relevance of studies indicating aspartame and its metabolites may affect enzyme activity in the brain, but they said scientific literature needs to be monitored for further research and mechanistic explanations related to this area.
Little or no substantive data was found to suggest that aspartame affects appetite, hunger or food intake, but the experts said a study on aspartame and cephalic insulin response in healthy fasting volunteers after taste stimulation, comparing sucrose, starch and saccharin, “warrants further consideration”.
It would also be interesting to conduct blind studies to see if aspartame alters exercise modified metabolic responses.
“Whilst the national experts do not suggest that any further studies should be undertaken, should a future study be performed, it is considered that aspartame intake should be taken into account,” they said.
Using data from case reports and additional reports collated by the UK and French food safety bodies, the experts were able to identify the most frequently reported symptoms as being headache, dizziness and cognitive/depressive disorders.
They emphasized that using anecdotal data has great limitations and there is therefore a need for caution when interpreting them, but the said the information gathered could help guide the design of any investigative studies on sensitivity and possible underlying mechanisms.
The experts report is available at this link.
A consultation workshop on the findings of the report is planned for 23 April in Frankfurt. Both the report, and the feedback generated through the consultation, will be presented to EFSA’s advisory forum in May.