Aspartame may be linked to brain cancer

TO ASPARTAME OR NOT TO ASPARTAME

Jeepers! Time to give up aspartame? A widely reported study wonders if a rise in U.S. rates of brain cancer in the 1980s might be linked to the time when the artificial sweetener aspartame entered the American diet--1981 for little blue packets, 1983 for sodas.

Who better to consult, I thought, than brain-cancer specialists at the nation's two top-ranked cancer hospitals. So I talked with Mark Malkin, MD, of Memorial SloanDKettering Cancer Center, and Alfred Yung, MD, of University of TexasDM.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Both doctors study the causes of malignant brain tumors and treat brain-cancer patients. Their analysis:

The recent study's aspartame-brain-cancer theory has a major flaw. Part of the observed increase in brain cancer is probably due to improved diagnosis.

Rats are not humans. The theory points to one study from the early 1970s in which some rats fed aspartame developed brain tumors. It's true that aspartame could form a substance called nitrosourea, a known cause of brain tumors in rats. But nitrosoureas have never been shown to cause brain tumors in humans.

The bottom line? Both experts say we can relax. "I wouldn't advise anyone to stop drinking diet soda or adding NutraSweet to coffee on the basis of this study," says Dr. Malkin. "I'm still drinking diet soda," says Dr. Yung. If you use aspartame, moderation--a serving or two a day--sounds like a sensible approach. (Note: In 1996 the FDA approved aspartame for use in all foods.)

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