The dairy industry’s attempt to re-brand a number of it’s Aspartame sweetened products using the word ‘Milk’ has got more than a few people’s blood pressure up, but do we really have anything to worry about?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is widely used as a sugar substitute. Although it produces around the same number of calories per gram as regular sugar, because it tastes around 200 times sweeter than sucrose it can do the same job with only the tiniest of percentages.
First synthesised in 1965 and originally branded ‘Nutrasweet’, it’s what puts the ‘Diet’ in Diet Coke and other low calorie drinks. However, for almost as many years it has attracted controversy. Some claim it to be responsible for a whole range of nasties like cancer and multiple sclerosis, yet the U.S. Food and Drug Association have had it on their approved list since 1981.
One of the more reliable ways to determine which side to believe is to look for evidence of junk science. The side with the most junk science loses, since what we really need is research that can effectively demonstrate a causation and not just a correlation.
Some recently published French research has been jumped upon by numerous media outlets who have delighted in telling us that the 14 year study on 66,000 women proves that Aspartame can increase risk of type 2 diabetes and despite the low calories – obesity. However the nitty gritty of the research suggests that it’s not quite as cut and dried.
For a start, the study only used women, which makes it immediately irrelevant for 50% of the population. They also only studied beverage consumption and not food. What is more remarkable about the way the media has fixated on the study is that even the researchers themselves have stopped short of blowing their own trumpet. Indeed they even admitted in their conclusion that they “cannot rule out that factors other than ASB [Artificially Sweetened Beverages] consumption that we did not control for are responsible for the association with diabetes”.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Diet drinks have long been associated with people who are trying to ease their dietary conscience. “McDonalds Big Mac meal with a, err.. diet coke, please?”
It appears that there have been around 200 studies which support the notion that Aspartame is perfectly safe. Indeed FDA officials have described it as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved”. That said, a number of those studies were commissioned by Aspartame manufacturers which can cast something of a cloud over research.
However, they do at least have the benefit of being peer-reviewed by some serious scientific big hitters in addition to the FDA, such as UK Food Standards Agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Cancer Society, The Epilepsy Institute, the US Center for Disease Control, and Health Canada.
So, we have the sheer amount of Aspartame that the Western World has consumed over the last 30 years without dropping like flies. We have a legion of legal professionals who would undoubtedly be itching to cash in on some compensation claims – were any legally provable evidence available of course. And we have a couple of hundred studies which suggest Aspartame is safe.
In the opposite corner we have one study that by its own admission is inconclusive, whilst the only other anti-Aspartame research has mainly been conducted on rats, where rat to human doseage conversion factors have been questionable. Much of the anti-Aspartame propaganda has, it would appear, come from a handful of fringe scientists and nutritionists whose opinions have been recycled to suit the agenda of the media outlets. What makes the most impressive headline; “Aspartame may give you diabetes/cancer/rot your brain”, or “Aspartame is safe – you can all go home now”?
So, it would appear that the resistance in using Aspartame in milk products is a little unnecessary, but then given the conflicting research and opinions surrounding the health properties of regular milk, some would argue that we don’t really need the white stuff with or without an artificial sweetener, but that’s another debate entirely.