EU food safety agency to test aspartame

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After the publication of new scientific studies revealing the potential negative impact of aspartame on pregnant women and evidence linking the sweetener with an increased risk of cancer, the European Commission has asked the EU's food safety watchdog (EFSA) to conduct a full re-evaluation of the substance by July 2012.

Aspartame has already been re-assessed five times since it was authorised for use in the EU in 1994. The next review of the chemical sweetener was foreseen for 2020 as part of the systematic re-evaluation of all authorised food additives in the EU.

But following intense political pressure from members of the European Parliament, who were alarmed by new scientific studies showing its potential negative effects, the EU executive has requested the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to bring forward a full re-evaluation of the sweetener's safety to 2012.

Cause of premature childbirth, cancer?

Two studies of the possible health risks related to the consumption of artificial sweeteners were published last year.

A carcinogenicity study in mice exposed to aspartame in feed, conducted by Italian oncologist Morando Soffritti, signalled an increased risk of liver and lung cancer in mice exposed to the chemical sweetener over the course of their lives.

An epidemiological study involving 60,000 pregnant women, carried out by Icelandic researcher Thorhallur Halldorsson, demonstrated that there is a link between intakes of artificially sweetened soft drinks and increased incidences of premature childbirth.

In a February 2011 statement, EFSA concluded that the two studies do not give any reason to reconsider previous safety assessments of aspartame or of other sweeteners currently authorised in the EU.

Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard (European United Left/Nordic Green Left), who has called into question the safety of aspartame since 2005, welcomed news of the re-assessment.

Her group considers it outrageous that so much political pressure was required before EFSA and the European Commission finally decided to move on the topic.

"The Authority just ignored the findings of the investigations in February saying they were 'unreliable'. That amounts to playing with public health. Even the smallest clue that aspartame could cause cancer or miscarriages should be a reason for an assessment to be seriously considered. Now, they have finally succumbed after years of pressure from the European Parliament. This indicates that EFSA and the Commission's data on the safety of aspartame is not 100% certain," said Liotard.

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group MEPs Corinne Lepage (France) and Antonyia Parvanova (Bulgaria) said that the Commission had apparently finally taken into account their repeated requests for a complete review of the aspartame safety profile, asking EFSA to conduct one before July 2012.

"This is good news but in the meantime we repeat our call for public information on the uncertainties concerning health implications to be available, and for pregnant women to be informed about suspected risks for the foetus, as voted in the environment committee," the ALDE MEPs said.

"We should denounce how careless the EFSA and the Commission have been handling this case until now; recent exchanges of letter between NGOs and the EFSA seem to indicate that the EFSA never took the time to look at the original evaluation, and that data have even been lost!," they added.

 

EU food and drink industry confederation CIAA stressed earlier this spring in a public hearing on aspartame that the food and drink industry was committed to providing consumers with choice.

Moreover, authorisation of the sweetener had enabled the EU food and drink industry to innovate, responding to consumer demands and increasing consumer choice, offering safe "energy reduced" or "without added sugar" food and drink products in addition to their traditional counterparts, the CIAA said.

The confederation also noted that aspartame's presence is labelled twice, if not three times, on all food and drink products in which it is used. "This provides consumers with the information necessary to make informed choices," it said.

Aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener. The odourless white powder is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is used in a number of low-calorie foodstuffs such as drinks, desserts, sweets, dairy, chewing gum and weight-control products.

When contained in products it is labelled either as "E951", "containing a source of phenylalanine" or "with sweetener". In the EU, aspartame was approved by legislation in 1994 as a food additive and is authorised in 33 different food categories.

After several re-evaluations since that approval, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that, based on all scientific evidence, aspartame remains safe for human consumption and there is no scientific basis for reconsidering its use in foods.

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