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Comment Period for EU Aspartame Assessment Drawing to a Close

Last month, the European Union’s food safety body published its long-awaited safety assessment of the controversial artificial sweetener aspartame, deeming the substance not dangerous to human health. Comments on the document will be accepted through Friday.

The safety of aspartame, used as a sugar substitute in a variety of foods and beverages including drinks, desserts, sweets, chewing gum, yogurt, energy-reduced and weight control products and as a table-top sweetener, has been questioned since the 1980s, when it was approved as a food additive by many European countries as well as by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (The substance was approved across the European Union in 1994.) Over the years, a series of studies have questioned whether aspartame may lead to a higher risk of cancer, among other adverse health reactions. FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have maintained that the majority of evidence supports that the additive is safe.

Now, a newly published risk assessment conducted by EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS) has reaffirmed the agency’s position that aspartame, identified as E951 in the EU, is safe for human consumption.

“To carry out this full risk assessment, EFSA has undertaken an in-depth review of peer-reviewed scientific and other literature on aspartame and its breakdown products, including new human studies,” said EFSA in a statement.

This opinion comes on the heels of two previous ANS reviews of new studies suggesting the carcinogenicity of aspartame conducted in 2006 and 2009. In 2010, EFSA reviewed two more studies linking the substance to cancer and determined no need to change its opinion.

EFSA also held a meeting of national experts in 2007 in response to public concern over the safety of aspartame, finding again that there was no need to reconsider the opinion that the additive is not dangerous.

The agency’s next review of aspartame was set to be completed by 2020, as part of a systemic review of all food additives approved for use in the EU before 2009, as mandated by the European Commission. However, the Commission asked EFSA to push that deadline up to 2012 for aspartame “due to the high controversy over the potential safety concern of this food additive which is highly consumed nowadays.”

After asking for permission to extend that deadline to 2013, EFSA released its draft risk assessment in January. The assessment is available for comment through February 15.

The agency will review these comments over the next three months and plans to release a final opinion in May.

“The publication of comments and EFSA’s replies to those comments will be published at the same time as the opinion, which is scheduled for May,” said an EFSA representative in an emailed statement to Food Safety News.

One member of the European Parliament, Kartika Tamara Liotard of the Netherlands, told the The Grocer that she had filed a list of questions with the European Commission, among them one asking why there was such a high level of absenteeism among the study’s aspartame experts.

Aspartame is currently approved for use as a food additive in over 90 countries worldwide, according to Health Canada.

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