A leading British expert has called for an investigation into serious health concerns over the artificial sweetener aspartame – after the EU food watchdog insisted it was safe.
The European Food Safety Authority has published a draft scientific opinion effectively rubbishing more than 20 studies which have identified potential problems with the sweetener, ranging from premature births to cancer.
The authority’s view will be welcomed by manufacturers who use aspartame and similar sweeteners in fizzy drinks such as Diet Coke, and diet foods consumed by millions of people every day.
But Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex, has challenged the ‘biased’ and ‘deeply flawed’ EFSA opinion.
Professor Millstone has been a leading expert on food policy in the UK for many years and his lobbying was instrumental in the setting up of Britain’s Food Standards Agency.
The way the EFSA assessed the evidence on aspartame was ‘perverse and biased’, he claimed.
He added: ‘The panel could only have reached its conclusion that aspartame is safe by implicitly assuming that almost all studies indicating no adverse effects are entirely reliable – even though they have numerous weaknesses and were almost all commercially funded, while all the studies indicating that aspartame may be unsafe are deemed unreliable – even though they sometimes have particular methodological strengths and even though they have all been funded independently of vested commercial interests.’
He also suggested that the EFSA panel that carried out the assessment was dominated by experts linked to manufacturers or regulators that have previously supported aspartame.
Professor Millstone said: ‘Of the 17 members of the EFSA panel, seven have direct commercial conflicts of interest, and another five have institutional conflicts of interest, for example, because their employers have already announced that aspartame is safe.’
He pointed to several convincing studies that raise real questions about the safety of aspartame and justify the need for further research.
An EU-funded project published in 2010 found that pregnant women who drank fizzy drinks containing artificial sweeteners appear to be at greater risk of having a premature baby.
He also highlighted work by the independent Ramazzini Foundation in Italy.
Its scientists have published research suggesting aspartame caused several types of cancer in rats at doses very close to the current acceptable daily intake for humans.
Professor Millstone said the EFSA should discount the draft report and convene a new panel composed only of experts who are free of any conflicts of interest.