A recent study has raised concerns about the potential impact of an ingredient commonly found in Diet Coke on memory and learning abilities.
The study conducted by the Florida State University College of Medicine, published in Scientific Reports, examined the effects of aspartame on male mice.
Over a 16-week period, three groups of mice were observed.
One group consumed an amount of this ingredient equivalent to about a litre of soft drinks, representing 15% of the FDA‘s maximum recommended daily intake.
A second group consumed 7% of the recommended maximum intake, equivalent to roughly half a litre of soft drinks daily. A third control group was given only water.
The mice were tested in mazes at four-week intervals, and the results were striking. Those that consumed this ingredient, even at levels considered safe by the FDA, displayed spatial learning and memory deficits compared to the control group.
They took significantly longer to navigate the maze and often required additional assistance.
Co-author Pradeep Bhide, an expert in developmental neuroscience, noted that these effects were observed in the offspring of the male mice but not in subsequent generations. This raises questions about potential epigenetic changes in sperm and their role in transmitting cognitive effects.
Bhide has called for a multi-generational perspective on the effects of this ingredient, urging the FDA to take a closer look in light of these findings. He joins other experts in expressing concerns about the safety of this widely used sweetener.
In June, the World Health Organization classified this ingredient as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” but it did not address the potential cognitive effects mentioned in this study.
Dr Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician, commented on the research findings, suggesting that even low-level consumption of this ingredient might contribute to memory and learning problems that could be passed down through generations. However, she emphasised the need for further research to establish a definitive connection between this ingredient and cognitive issues.
It is essential to note that this study was conducted on mice, and its applicability to humans remains uncertain.
Despite these findings, industry experts, including the Calorie Control Council, maintain that there is no evidence linking this ingredient to cognitive impairments in humans.
They continue to assert the safety of this ingredient, highlighting the importance of factual accuracy and considering the totality of evidence in assessing its safety.
According to Food Standards Australia & New Zealand, “All scientific evidence to date supports the safety of aspartame for use as a sweetener, however re-evaluation work is proposed.”
Food and beverage products that contain aspartame typically carry a statement on the label to alert individuals with a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) to the presence of phenylalanine.
Coca-Cola Australia, for instance, has taken proactive steps to ensure consumer safety. They have an FAQ page dedicated to aspartame, where they emphasise the importance of individuals with PKU avoiding the consumption of aspartame due to its phenylalanine content.
The beverage company however maintains that the “small portion of the population [that] has this rare condition does not mean in any way that aspartame is unsafe for other consumers.”
Regarding the link between aspartame and cancer
In addition to concerns about memory and learning, aspartame has faced scrutiny for its potential cancer risk. A recent report from news.com.au highlighted the World Health Organisation‘s (WHO) classification of aspartame as a “possible carcinogen”.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), WHO’s cancer research unit, made this classification based on its assessment of all available evidence.
It‘s worth noting that this classification focuses on the potential hazard of this ingredient and does not consider the safe consumption levels for individuals.
The IARC‘s decision is set to be officially released in July, along with separate advice on safe consumption levels from a WHO expert committee on food additives known as JECFA.
This news has raised concerns among businesses and regulators, who fear potential confusion due to the concurrent release of both assessments.
Aspartame has been studied extensively for decades, and while some studies have suggested a link between its consumption and a slightly higher risk of cancer, the evidence remains inconclusive.
Some experts argue that further research is needed to determine any potential connection between this ingredient and cancer.
While discussions continue on the safety of this ingredient, it‘s important to emphasise that government food regulators, including those in Australia, have repeatedly found artificial sweeteners like this ingredient to be safe within recommended daily limits.