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Do Diet Sodas Cause Pre-Term Babies? Some EU Politicos Think So

The European Parliament has ignited a contentious new battle in the festering controversy over the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame (also known as NutraSweet). Euro lawmakers have proposed a warning label for diet soda and other beverages. If adopted, the label, which follows a Danish study last year that found links between the consumption of artificially sweetened soda and an increased risk of preterm delivery, would read:

Contains aspartame (a source of phenylalanine; might be unsuitable for pregnant women)
Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study is just the latest to raise questions about the sweetener, which is used in most diet sodas. A study in 2005 by the European Ramazzini Foundation found high rates of lymphomas, leukemias and other cancers in rats that had been given doses of it starting at what would be equivalent to four to five 20-ounce bottles of diet soda a day for a 150-pound person.

Verdict: Inconclusive
Scary, right? Maybe. The problem with all this alarming research is that it isn't conclusive. There have been other studies showing no problems at all. Both the EU's European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the French food safety agency ANSES evaluated the Danish study and concluded that it didn't warrant a reconsideration of aspartame's safety status. In part, that's because the study was epidemiological, which means the researchers examined a group of people (60,000 pregnant women between 1996 and 2002) and looked for correlations, a method that doesn't necessarily prove anything unless similar results are replicated by other researchers.

Here in the U.S., the FDA reviewed the Ramazzini study and decided that the data didn't support the conclusion that aspartame is a carcinogen, although the FDA isn't exactly a paragon of proactive regulation when it comes to dangers in the food supply. It had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, for instance, into doing something about trans fats, and hydrogenated soybean oil still remains on the Generally Recognized As Safe List, even though when partially hydrogenated it's decidedly not.

Been a long time coming
The controversy over aspartame isn't likely to go away any time soon, since it dates all the way back to the sweetener's storied approval process in the late 1970s. The FDA ultimately approved aspartame in 1981, but the lead-up to that decision has given endless fodder to conspiracy theorists.

It includes the politically connected Donald Rumsfeld as CEO of the company making aspartame (J.D. Searle), a U.S. attorney calling for a grand jury to investigate Searle for concealing material and making false statements and then leaving for a job at Searle's law firm, and an FDA board of inquiry voting to withhold approval because one of Searle's studies on rats showed an increase in brain tumors from aspartame.

Playing it safe or letting it ride?
Ultimately, the issue comes down to whether you believe that uncertainty warrants playing it safe, especially with vulnerable populations like newborn babies -- the precautionary principle that's often adopted in Europe -- or whether acting without conclusive proof is unfair to businesses, the more industry-friendly approach to regulation favored in the U.S.

The sponsor of the warning label proposal, French member of Parliament Corinne Lepage, acknowledges that the Danish study doesn't warrant a firm conclusion that aspartame will cause you to deliver a baby at 30 weeks, but she says she wants to make pregnant women aware of the uncertainty so that they can decide whether or not to expose themselves to it.

Sounds reasonable, but unsurprisingly, aspartame manufacturers and beverage companies are up in arms. They'll be busy between now and July, when the next vote on the matter is scheduled.

Image by Flickr user Tojosan

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