King’s College, London, last week announced a three-year study to establish whether there is a link between the artificial sweetener aspartame and brain cancer – resurrecting long-held fears in the UK about the safety of the additive.
While St Louis-based Monsanto, the food giant which manufactures aspartame under the brand name NutraSweet, insists the product is safe, companies which use the additive in their products as a sugar substitute must be wondering how the negative publicity will damage their brands.
Research establishing a link between aspartame and cancer could obviously mean the end of NutraSweet, but Tom Blackett, deputy chairman of brand consultancy the Interbrand Group, points out: “The question is, do consumers link aspartame with NutraSweet? If they do, and the findings are established, NutraSweet will be damaged.”
He believes there are parallels with the infamous drug Thalidomide, which was used in the Sixties to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women but caused widespread deformities in new-born babies. “Despite what happened, Thalidomide is still used by doctors to treat things like polio in developing countries. [But] Its reputation was irreparably damaged, and the name is rarely used.”
However, some experts say this investigation has come too late for a product that has been used since 1965. Jack Winkler, chairman of Action & Information on Sugars, an independent voluntary organisation set up by nutritional and dental professionals, comments: “NutraSweet won’t be here in five to ten years. Monsanto is almost ready to launch a sweetener called neotame, which is 8,000 times as sweet as sugar.
New product undercuts sugar
Neotame, a calorie-free sweetener which took Monsanto 16 years to develop, is awaiting approval from the US Food & Drug Administration.
“This new product will undercut sugar. It will be cheaper for manufacturers, and it can be used in cooking, whereas aspartame can’t be heated. By the time the results of this research project come out, aspartame will be almost completely replaced,” says Winkler.
NutraSweet, the world’s leading sweetener, is used in more than 5,000 products, in particular soft drinks but also yogurts, milk-based desserts, chewing gum, table-top sweeteners, confectionery, hot chocolate drinks, low-alcohol beers and pharmaceuticals.
The West European market for low-calorie carbonates has grown from 580 million litres in 1983 (when NutraSweet was launched) to 3,500 million last year. The sweetener industry was worth about £1bn worldwide (£30m in the UK) last year.
In the UK – the largest market in Europe – sugar-free colas represented less than ten per cent of the cola market when NutraSweet was a launched. They now account for more than 49 per cent.
Aspartame accounts for 37 per cent of soft drinks sweeteners in the UK, second only to sugar.
Ailbhe Fallon, press officer at the NutraSweet Information Centre, says aspartame is one of the most thoroughly researched ingredients in food. “We have an excellent and safe product that delivers in [terms of] taste. Aspartame has gone through regulatory approval in more than 200 countries. It has been reviewed internationally many times,” she says. “There is simply no need to spend this money on new research. We cannot see that it will throw any light on aspartame, or its safety.”
Defending aspartame’s safety
Ken Wood, managing director for MÃÂ¼ller yogurts, comments: “Aspartame is used in very small quantities in MÃÂ¼llerlight yogurts. There is already overwhelming scientific evidence to prove the sweetener is safe.”
Britvic produces a number of diet alternatives to its brands, including Pepsi, 7-Up, Tango and Robinsons. A spokeswoman says: “We monitor the situation very carefully, and if a link is ever established we would review the situation with aspartame.”
The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), the regulatory body for the soft drinks industry, will continue to sanction the use of products that are approved for use by the Department of Health (DoH) and the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF). A BSDA spokeswoman says: “We have asked the advice of these government bodies, and we are perfectly satisfied with aspartame. NutraSweet believes this research will support the product. We will stand by and see what the outcome is.”
George Thompson, a stock market analyst with Prudential Securities in the US, which covers the soft drinks market, supports the industry view: “There is zero evidence to suggest there is a problem for brands here in the US. I would say this situation is similar to the Coca-Cola scare in Belgium. People may take notice initially, but there will be zero impact on sales.”
However, Sue Dibb, co-director of the UK Food Commission, an independent organisation which campaigns for safer food, comments: “There have been question marks over aspartame for a number of years. Any further research that can shed light on the safety of the product has to be welcomed by consumers and manufacturers concerned about brands.”
While manufacturers are eager to flag the healthy image of their sugar-free brands, they prefer not to admit to the use of artificial sweeteners, and are resisting moves by the European Commission to make them display such information on the front of all packaging.
Aspartame – which is 200 times sweeter than sugar – has only been widely used in the UK this decade. The King’s College study aims to determine whether certain people have a genetic weakness that causes a dangerously reaction to the sweetener, while others suffer no ill effects.
The study will look at whether certain people are susceptible to methanol, a compound in aspartame that research has suggested can attack DNA and cause cells to mature, giving rise to cancer.
In 1996, a study by the American Association of Neuropathologists alleged a link between the widespread use of aspartame and a ten per cent increase in the incidence of brain tumours in the US in the early Eighties. The study was based on experiments on rats in 1978.
NutraSweet said the scientists manipulated their results and pointed to other studies that showed the product to be safe.
The British Government’s Committee on Carcinogenicity agreed there were flaws in the US study and rejected the allegation.
The new research will attempt to determine once and for all whether aspartame poses a health risk. Led by neurochemist Dr Peter Nunn, the £147,000 project is sponsored by the charitable body the Samantha Dickson Research Trust, with addition funding from the National Lottery.
There are natural alternatives to NutraSweet already on the market. Sucralose – 600 times sweeter than sugar – was launched in the US last summer under the brand name Splenda. It is made from real sugar, has a natural taste and has so far escaped criticism. There is also a calorie-free plant derivative called Stevia – 400 times sweeter than table sugar – that can be concentrated into liquid form.
Last month, Monsanto announced it wants to sell its sweetener operations, including NutraSweet, as part of a £1.3bn divestment of non-core business. The company spent £3.4bn last year acquiring a raft of hi-tech start-ups around the globe and now needs to recoup some of the cost.
Neotame, Monsanto’s next-generation artificial sweetener, will be marketed by whoever buys Monsanto’s sweetener arm. Perhaps charity and lottery money might be better spent studying the safety of the next big entry into the market.