By GREG GORDON
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
WASHINGTON -- 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
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 said.
Dr. John Olney, lead author of the paper, is a noted neuropathologist and
psychiatrist who has challenged aspartame's safety since the 1970s.
``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 hypothesis.
Dr. Michael Friedman, the FDA's deputy commissioner for operations, said there
are ``serious methodological questions about Dr. Olney's conclusions.''
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 chairman.
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
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
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
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.