ASPARTAME AND BRAIN TUMORS
NUTRASWEET IS SUSPECTED IN RISE IN BRAIN TUMORS
Copyright & copy 1996 Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune
WASHINGTON (Nov 5, 1996 01:01 a.m. EST) -- Aspartame, the popular
artificial sweetener sold most often as NutraSweet, is a leading
suspect in an upsurge of deadly brain tumors in the United States,
researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have concluded.
Their analysis of National Cancer Institute data, to be published this
week in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology,
found that the number of brain tumors jumped by 10 percent in 1984, a
year after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the
sweetener for widespread use in food and soft drinks. Similar
increases in brain tumors occurred in Europe, the researchers said.
The U.S. increase -- about 1,310 cases per year -- was marked by
rising diagnoses of the same type of highly malignant tumor found in
laboratory rats in an aspartame study in the 1970s, the scientists
Dr. John Olney, lead author of the paper, is a noted neuropathologist
and psychiatrist who has challenged aspartame's safety since the
"Compared to other environmental factors, aspartame appears to be a
promising candidate for explaining the surge in brain tumors in the
mid-1980s," Olney and three colleagues said, emphasizing that they
were not asserting a causal link but rather urging further research
here and abroad.
The FDA and aspartame's top manufacturer disputed the paper's
Dr. Michael Friedman, the FDA's deputy commissioner for operations,
said there are "serious methodological questions about Dr. Olney's
Neither epidemiologists at the National Cancer Institute nor the FDA's
own scientists who reviewed the data "find even a weak association
between aspartame and brain tumor incidence in the United States," he
said, saying no further study is needed.
A spokesman for the Illinois-based NutraSweet Kelco Co., which sells
close to $1 billion of aspartame annually, said the researchers
"manipulated the data to make their point."
"Aspartame is likely the most tested food additive in history," the
company said. "There is no evidence that aspartame is a carcinogen,
let alone that it causes brain tumors."
The firm, a unit of the Monsanto Corp., sells aspartame as the
tabletop sweetener Equal, and supplies it for a smorgasbord of
products, including soft drinks, Crystal Lite, puddings, gelatins and
chewing gum, for use by more than 100 million people worldwide.
While a highly profitable product, aspartame has been enmeshed in
controversy ever since the Chicago-based G.D. Searle & Co. won FDA
approval -- first in 1981, for use in dry foods, and then in 1983, for
soft drinks and other foods. At the time, Donald Rumsfeld, now
chairman of Bob Dole's presidential campaign, was G.D. Searle's
Thousands of consumers have filed adverse-reaction reports with the
FDA blaming NutraSweet for migraine headaches, vision problems,
epileptic seizures and other maladies -- links the company says have
never been clinically proved.
While the vast majority of industry-sponsored studies have said
aspartame causes no health problems, a number of independent studies
have raised serious questions.
Cancer concerns date back two decades. In the mid-1970s, 12 of 320
aspartame-fed rats in a company-sponsored study developed brain
tumors, compared with none in a control group. The company provided
other research to discount that finding, but in 1986, FDA commissioner
Alexander Schmidt told a Senate Committee that Searle's research could
"at best be characterized as sloppy" and that its scientists had made
decisions that "tended to minimize the chances of discovering
In 1981, acting on a petition from Olney and consumer attorney James
Turner, an FDA Public Board of Inquiry voted unanimously to keep
aspartame off the market because of concerns about brain tumors. But
shortly after assuming the FDA commissioner's job that year, Arthur
Hull Hayes Jr. overruled the board and approved NutraSweet for limited
use, citing a late-arriving study sponsored by Searle's Japanese
partner; that study's statistical validity also has been questioned.
Olney, who recently was elected to the Institute of Medicine, an
affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, established himself as
a pioneer in the field of food additive research in the 1970s. His
discovery that monosodium glutamate killed nerve cells in immature
animals caused the food industry to remove MSG from baby food.