Did the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) mislead people about safety of aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener? It seems so because in 2013 it ignored the results of every single one of 73 studies that indicated that aspartame could be harmful while treating 84 per cent of studies providing no prima facie evidence of harm as unproblematically reliable.
A newly published paper by University of Sussex researchers has detailed serious flaws in the reassurance provided in 2013 by EFSA about the safety of aspartame.
The new study by Professor Erik Millstone and Dr Elisabeth Dawson concluded that the panel’s appraisal of the available studies was asymmetrically more alert to putative false positives than to possible false negatives. The qualitative analysis shows that very demanding criteria were used to judge putative positive studies, while far more lax and forgiving criteria were applied to putative negative studies.
Prof Millstone, an expert on food chemical safety policy, is calling for the suspension of authorisation to sell or use aspartame in the EU pending an independent and thorough re-examination of relevant evidence —including key documents that Prof Millstone says were omitted from the dossier the panel reviewed.
He is also advocating a radical overhaul of EU food safety processes including an end to behind closed door discussions.
“Our analysis of the evidence shows that, if the benchmarks the panel used to evaluate the results of reassuring studies had been consistently used to evaluate the results of studies that provided evidence that aspartame maybe unsafe then they would have been obliged to conclude there was sufficient evidence to indicate aspartame is not acceptably safe,” he said.
According to the University of Sussex research, the panel:
* Breached EFSA guidelines on risk assessment transparency on multiple grounds.
* Adopted a low-hurdle for the acceptability of negative studies – including studies previously dubbed “woefully inadequate” and “worthless” by experts.
* Applied unreachably high hurdles for ‘positive’ studies indicating adverse effects – even though many of those 73 studies were far more reliable than most of the studies that provided no indication of risk.
* Demonstrated puzzling anomalies including inconsistent and unacknowledged assumptions.
“In my opinion, based on this research, the question of whether commercial conflicts of interest may have affected the panel’s report can never be adequately ruled out because all meetings all took place behind closed doors.”
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City, University of London who was not involved in the research, said: “The paper is both important and timely. The global health advice is to reduce sugar intake, yet much of the food industry – especially soft drinks – maintains the sweetness by substituting artificial sweeteners. Millstone and Dawson help expose that strategy for what it is, a continued sweetening of the world’s diet. The healthy strategy is surely to tackle the cultural reinforcement of sweetness and to encourage less sweet foods and drinks, full stop. Surely we now argue: reduce both sugar and artificial alternatives.”