After completing its “first full risk assessment” of aspartame and associated breakdown products, a European Union food-safety group has concluded that the controversial artificial sweetener is safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure. However, a panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) noted that, while the current Acceptable Daily Intake of 40 mg/kg bw/day for aspartame (50 mg/kg in the U.S.) is “protective for the general population,” that amount is not applicable for those suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU), which requires a diet low in the amino acid phenylalanine (one of the breakdown products). “This opinion represents one of the most comprehensive risk assessments of aspartame ever undertaken. It’s a step forward in strengthening consumer confidence in the scientific underpinning of the EU food safety system and the regulation of food additives,” said Dr. Alicja Mortensen, head of EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Foods. The EFSA panel, based in Parma, Italy, said that it reviewed all evidence from human and animal studies and ruled out the potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer, harming the brain or nervous system, or affecting behavior or cognitive function in children or adults. The European Commission requested the EFSA review in May 2011, and the panel’s scientific opinion was released on Tuesday, Dec. 10. Diet drink manufacturers were likely to welcome the EFSA panel’s opinion, including The Coca-Cola Co., which uses aspartame in Diet Coke and Coke Zero, and PepsiCo, which uses aspartame in Diet Pepsi. Diet drink sales have recently slipped in the U.S. as concerns over the safety of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame repeatedly crop up. In a recent beverage industry article, Coca-Cola Americas President Steve Cahillane admitted that the company was “under a bit of pressure” from consumers who continue to question the safety of ingredients in its diet products. Others were quick to criticize the EFSA panel’s opinion. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the EFSA review a “whitewash” and charged that panel members ignored studies showing that aspartame causes cancer in laboratory animals. “Three large, independent studies that found a link between aspartame and cancer are far more reliable than inferior industry-funded studies that do not even meet current standards and did not find a link,” said CSPI senior scientist Lisa Lefferts in a statement released Tuesday. “Yet the EFSA dismissed the independent studies, effectively whitewashing valid safety concerns. Aspartame just isn’t worth the risk it poses to consumers.” The U.K-based Alliance for Natural Health International asserts that aspartame is an addictive neurotoxin that may cause cancer, and that its byproducts, including formaldehyde and others, have been associated in animal studies with increased brain tumors, as well as neurological, behavioral and gastrointestinal side effects in humans. Aspartame, sometimes identified as E951 on product labels, is sold under these brand names: NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful, Equal-Measure, Canderel and others. It is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and is used in more than 6,000 food products around the world. Aspartame was accidentally discovered by a G.D. Searle scientist in 1965, FDA approved it for human food use in 1981, and it was approved EU-wide in 1994. The patent (owned by Monsanto after it bought Searle) expired in 1992.