Aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in light food products and soft drinks, does not pose risks to the general population, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said on Tuesday (10 December). It urged the Commission to strengthen consumer confidence in the additive.
After considering the results of hundreds of studies, EFSA concluded “that aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for consumption,” the chair of its panel on food additives, Alicja Mortensen, announced on Tuesday.
The amount of aspartame one person can consume per day, or ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI), is currently at 40 milligrams per kilogram (of food). “There was no reason to revise this ADI,” EFSA argued.
The agency flagged that people suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU) do not fall under this recommendation: PKU patients are unable to metabolise a certain type of amino acid found in aspartame and, EFSA advised, “should avoid all food items containing aspartame”.
Aspartame is primarily known as an artificial sweetener that is used as an alternative to sugar substances in many soft drinks and ‘light’ food products on the European market. The sweetener has been re-assessed six times since it was authorised for use in the EU in 1994.
The agency added that the European Commission can now work towards strengthening the confidence of European consumers in products containing aspartame.
Wave of public concerns
In 2010, public mistrust towards the artificial sweetener peaked after two studies linked aspartame to the development of cancers in mice and to premature childbirth. As a result, the European Commission asked EFSA to fast-track its re-evaluation of aspartame, which was originally up for scrutiny only by 2020.
The agency’s final opinion paper was supposed to come out last May. But when the agency opened up the process to public consultation last January, it received more than 200 comments, the majority of which were submitted by NGOs, members of the food industry and journalists.
“We wanted to take the time to answer all of the criticisms,” said Mortensen, acknowledging that there were many important aspects in the earlier draft opinion document that needed clarification.
The opinion claimed that more recent scientific research has discredited the studies of 2010, referring to research that demonstrated the levels of aspartame detected in the blood during similar tests are low and show no cause for concern.
The European Food Safety Authority is often criticised by NGOs for its ‘revolving door’- experts sitting on panels and in decision-making bodies often have a background in the food industry, or return to this industry after they leave EFSA, leading to conflicts of interest.
Early in the re-evaluation process for aspartame, two members of the panel voluntarily resigned because they took on jobs in companies with a commercial interest in the sales of products using aspartame.
“These persons only participated in the first, introductory meeting [of the panel],” being offered such positions only after this meeting, senior officer of the food ingredients unit Georges Kass stressed, dismissing allegations of possible conflicts of interest.
“Yet again, a globally recognised scientific authority has confirmed the safety of aspartame. We welcome the clarity of the EFSA Opinion and the reassurance it provides to consumers. Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested ingredients in our food supply and its safety is supported by more than 200 studies spanning 30 years,” said a statement from UNESDA, a body representing the European Soft Drinks industry.
Emeritus Professor Andrew Renwick, OBE, from the University of Southampton, commented:
"The food industry is a closely regulated sector. The EFSA Panel on Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food is made up of excellent experts from a wide range of disciplines who have analysed and assessed all available data. People should be confident that the data reviewed is the most up-to-date and that the EFSA opinion is based on all existing scientific facts."