HomeIdeaAspartame and health risks, brief scientific review

Aspartame and health risks, brief scientific review

The harmfulness of aspartame - classified as a possible carcinogen, but still widely present in foods - emerges in dozens of independent scientific studies, the subject of a valuable scientific review by U.S. Right to Know. (1)

Cancer

A study cohort study conducted on 102.865 French adults (Debras et al., 2022) associates the consumption of artificial sweeteners – in particular aspartame and acesulfame-K – with an increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer, and obesity-related cancers. (2)

Three studies of the Ramazzini Institute of Bologna, Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center (Soffritti et al., 2006, 2007 and 2010) provide consistent evidence of carcinogenicity in rodents exposed to this substance. (3)

Una scientific review of Boston College in the USA (Landrigan et al., 2021) confirms that aspartame is a carcinogenic chemical agent in rodents and that prenatal exposure to aspartame increases the risk of cancer in their offspring. (4)

Another study of the Ramazzini Institute published on Annals of Global Health (Gnudi et al., 2023) details the diagnoses of hemolymphoreticular neoplasms (lymphomas) from rat studies, confirming the dose-related pattern of the diseases. (5)

Harvard researchers they reported onAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Schernhammer et al,. 2012) a correlation between aspartame intake and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men and leukemia in men and women. (6)

Brain tumors

Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology already reported in 1996 (Olney et al., 1996) epidemiological evidence linking the introduction of aspartame to the higher prevalence of an aggressive form of malignant brain tumors. (7)

Cardiovascular diseases

The French study of NutriNet-Santé cohort (Debras et al., 2022) already reported on the GIFT website confirms the suspicion – already emerged in previous studies – that the consumption of aspartame (E 951) increases the risk of cerebrovascular events (stroke).

A meta-analysis on artificial sweeteners published by Canadian Medical Association Journal (Azad et al., 2017) - in addition to not identifying the alleged benefits of artificial sweeteners on weight loss - offered evidence on the increase in waist circumference and the higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and related cardiovascular events for their consumption. (8) Confirming a previous study (Fowler et al., 2016) published on Physiology & Behavior. (9)

General Women's Health Initiative, in a study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine (Vyas et al., 2015), revealed 'a higher risk of [cardiovascular] events'cardiovascular disease mortality and all-cause mortality in women consuming more than two diet drinks per day. (10)

These risks were confirmed by WHO in May 2023 for aspartame (E 951) and all other synthetic sweeteners: acesulfame K (E 950), advantame (E 969), cyclamates (E 952), neotame (E 961), saccharin (E 954 ), sucralose (E 955), stevia and stevia derivatives (E 960). (11)

Stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Drink every day sodas with synthetic sweeteners triple the likelihood of developing stroke and dementia from Alzheimer's disease, according to a study (Pase et al. 2017) published on Stroke. (12)

The methyl ester of aspartame is metabolized into methanol and can be converted into formaldehyde, exposure to which has in fact been linked to the risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease (Yang et al., 2014). (13)

Neurotoxicity

Several studies link aspartame consumption to behavioral and cognitive problems including learning problems, headaches, seizures, migraines, irritable mood, anxiety, depression and insomnia. In this regard, the research (Choudhary et al., 2017) published on Nutritional Neuroscience. (14)

Headache and migraine

Four studies scientific evidence shows a correlation between the consumption of aspartame and the onset of headaches:

  • Head and Face Pain Journal had published three studies associating migraine with both chewing of chewing gum with aspartame (Blumenthal et al., 1997), and its dietary intake (Koehler et al., 1987; Lipton et al., 1988), (15)
  • a randomized double-blind study (Van den Eeden et al., 1994), published by Neurology, identified further correlations between aspartame intake and headache. (16)

Intestinal dysbiosis, metabolic imbalance and obesity

aspartame it is also related to the alteration of the intestinal microbiota in offspring and mothers, together with obesity and diabetes risk, in one studio (Jodi et al., 2020) published in Gut MBJ which also considers other sweeteners - synthetic and mass produced - and finds confirmation in various researches:

  • the consumption of aspartame by pregnant women and new mothers affects the intestinal microbiota of the offspring (Weilan et al., 2022), (17)
  • 'aspartame elevated fasting glucose levels, and an insulin tolerance test showed that aspartame impaired insulin-stimulated glucose disposal… Fecal analysis of intestinal bacterial composition showed that aspartame increased total bacteria' (Palmnas et al., 2014). (18)

Other evidence

Scientific literature reports numerous health risks associated with the consumption of the heavy-duty sweetener, aspartame (in primis):

  • premature birth. A Danish cohort study of 59.334 pregnant women (Thorhallur et al., 2010), published by American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, indicates that 'daily intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks may increase the risk of preterm birth'(19)
  • early menarche. ‘Consumption of artificially sweetened, caffeinated soft drinks was positively associated with risk of premature menarche in a US group of African-American and Caucasian girls' (Mueller et al., 2015), (20)
  • Parkinson's disease. A recent scientific review (Kushigian et al., 2023), on Nutritional Neuroscience, consider the effects of aspartame consumption on the Parkinson's disease. ‘Multiple studies have demonstrated a decrease in brain dopamine, a decrease in brain norepinephrine, an increase in oxidative stress, an increase in lipid peroxidation and a decrease in memory function in rodents after the use of APM (aspartame, ed)'(21)
  • anxiety. The researchers of the Florida State University College of Medicine (USA), in a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Jones et al., 2022), associated aspartame with anxiety-like behaviors in mice. The effects extended up to the next two generations in males exposed to the sweetener, (22)
  • kidney function. Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (Curhan, 2011) finally indicates that the consumption of more than two servings per day of artificially sweetened soft drinks 'is associated with a two-fold risk of renal function decline in women'. (23)

Consumer advice

Consumers are advised to read the ingredient list carefully chewing gum, energy drink and soft drinks advertised as 'sugar free', 'zero (sugars)' or 'diet'. And avoid buying products that list 'aspartame' or 'E 951' among the sweeteners.

Saccharin – historical protagonist of 'sugar-free' products, before being suspected of possible carcinogenicity (26) – and acesulfame K they should also be avoided, in the light of independent scientific studies which associate their consumption with various health risks. (24,25)

Post scriptum

'We citizens and representatives of civil society must demand that the European Commission (DG Sante) rapidly manage the serious emerging public health risks, in the exercise of the responsibilities attributed to it by the General Food Law. 

The experience of titanium dioxide, banned in the EU six years after EFSA's evidence on its dangerousness – and still permitted in medicines, cosmetics, toothpastes (28) – is the worst example of how public health is threatened rather than protected.

CSR initiatives (Corporate Social Reporting) and ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) should also consider the deliberate choices of the industrial giants to continue the use of substances whose safety is doubted in copious scientific literature. But greenwashing, as we know, is much more profitable. Beyond unpunished' (Dario Dongo, Égalité, president).

Marta Strinati

Footnotes

(1) Stacy Malkan. Aspartame: Decades of science point to serious health risks. US Right to Know. 25.7.23 https://usrtk.org/sweeteners/aspartame_health_risks/

(2) Charlotte Debras et al. Artificial sweeteners and cancer risk: Results from the NutriNet-Santé population-based cohort study. PLOS Medicine. March 2022. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003950

(3) Soffritti M Et alL. First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats. About Health Perspective. 2006 https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.8711

Soffritti m et al. Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats. About Health Perspective. 2007 Sep https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.10271 

Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Manservigi M, Tibaldi E, Lauriola M, Falcioni L, Bua L. Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice. Am J Ind Med. 2010 Dec https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.20896

(4) Landrigan, PJ, Straif, K. Aspartame and cancer - new evidence for causation. EnvironHealth (2021) https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-021-00725-y

(5) Gnudi, F., Panzacchi, S., Tibaldi, E., Iuliani, M., Sgargi, D., Bua, L. and Mandrioli, D., 2023. Hemolymphoreticular Neoplasias from the Ramazzini Institute Long-term Mice and Rat Studies on Aspartame. Annals of Global Health, 89(1), p.43.DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/aogh.4163

(6) Schernhammer Eve et al. Consumption of artificial sweetener– and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012.DOI: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.030833

(7) Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame? J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov;55(11):1115-23. doi: 10.1097/00005072-199611000-00002. PMID: 8939194.

(8) Meghan B. Azad, Ahmed M. Abou-Setta, Bhupendrasinh F. Chauhan, Rasheda Rabbani, Justin Lys, Leslie Copstein, Amrinder Mann, Maya M. Jeyaraman, Ashleigh E. Reid, Michelle Fiander, Dylan S. MacKay, Jon McGavock, Brandy Wicklow and Ryan Zarychanski. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. CMAJ July 17, 2017 189 (28) E929-E939; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.161390

(9) Fowler GSP. Low-calorie sweetener use and energy balance: Results from experimental studies in animals, and large-scale prospective studies in humans. Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 1;164(Pt B):517-523. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.047. Epub 2016 Apr 26. PMID: 27129676; PMC ID: PMC5045440.

(10) Vyas, A., Rubenstein, L., Robinson, J. et al. Diet Drink Consumption and the Risk of Cardiovascular Events: A Report from the Women's Health Initiative. J JAN INTERN MED 30, 462-468 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-014-3098-0

(11) Marta Strinati. 'Sugar free'? Synthetic sweeteners are useless and harmful, WHO warns. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

(12) Matthew P. Pase et al. Sugar- and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Accident Stroke and Dementia. A Prospective Cohort Study. Stroke... 2017 https://doi.org/10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016027

(13) Yang M, Lu J, Miao J, Rizak J, Yang J, Zhai R, Zhou J, Qu J, Wang J, Yang S, Ma Y, Hu X, He R. Alzheimer's disease and methanol toxicity (part 1 ): chronic methanol feeding led to memory impairments and tau hyperphosphorylation in mice. J Alzheimer's Dis. 2014;41(4):1117-29. doi:10.3233/JAD-131529. PMID: 24787915.

(14) Choudhary AK, Lee YY. Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection? Nutr Neurosci. 2018 Jun;21(5):306-316. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. Epub 2017 Feb 15. PMID: 28198207

 

(15) Blumenthal, HJ and Vance, DA (1997), Chewing Gum Headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 37: 665-666. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1526-4610.1997.3710665.x

Richard B. Lipton et al. Aspartame as a Dietary Trigger of Headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. February, 1989 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4610.1989.hed2902090.x

Shirley M. Koehler, Alan Glaros. The Effect of Aspartame on Migraine Headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. February 1988 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2524.1988.hed2801010.x

(16) Van den Eeden SK, Koepsell TD, Longstreth WT Jr, van Belle G, Daling JR, McKnight B. Aspartame ingestion and headaches: a randomized crossover trial. Neurology. 1994 Oct;44(10):1787-93. doi: 10.1212/wnl.44.10.1787. PMID: 7936222.

(17) Wang Weilan, Nettleton Jodi E., Gänzle Michael G., Reimer Raylene A. A Metagenomics Investigation of Intergenerational Effects of Non-nutritive Sweeteners on Gut Microbiome. Frontiers in Nutrition 2022. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2021.795848  DOI=10.3389/fnut.2021.795848

(18) Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE 9 (10): e109841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0109841

(19) Halldorsson Thorhallur et al. Intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and risk of preterm delivery: a prospective cohort study in 59,334 Danish pregnant women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September 2010. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.28968

(20) Mueller NT, Jacobs DR Jr, MacLehose RF, Demerath EW, Kelly SP, Dreyfus JG, Pereira MA. Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with risk of early menarche. Am J Clin Nutri. 2015 Sep;102(3):648-54. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100958. Epub 2015 Jul 15. PMID: 26178725; PMC ID: PMC4548172

(21) Daniel J. Kushigian & Okeanis E. Vaou (2023) Aspartame use and Parkinson's disease: review of associated effects on neurotransmitters, oxidative stress, and cognition, Nutritional Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2023.2228561

(22) Sara K. Jones et al. Transgenerational transmission of aspartame-induced anxiety and changes in glutamate-GABA signaling and gene expression in the amygdala. PNAS 2022. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2213120119

(23) Lin J, Curhan GC. Associations of sugar and artificially sweetened soda with albuminuria and kidney function decline in women. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan;6(1):160-6. doi: 10.2215/CJN.03260410. Epub 2010 Sep 30. PMID: 20884773; PMC ID: PMC3022238

(24) CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Saccharin. https://tinyurl.com/mr9d7akf Updated Feb. 3, 2022

(25) Marta Strinati. Acesulfame K and diet, memory impairment. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade).

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".

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