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Aspartame: Bitter truth in artificial sweeteners?

P.T. Jyothi Datta

Mumbai , Oct. 3

IS there a bitter truth lurking behind artificial sweeteners? As concerns over the safety of sugar-substitutes containing aspartame emerge yet again, the Centre has decided not to dilute the existing labelling requirements on tabletop sweeteners.

"Not recommended for children. Not for phenylketoneurics" is the mandatory label currently used on artificial sweeteners such as Sweetex, Equal and Sugar Free. And the Centre intends to keep it that way, despite requests from the industry, said an official with the Union Health Ministry.

Industry representatives hoped to get the mandatory label diluted, as it limited the market for the product, an official with a multinational company had said while launching the global sugar-substitute in India. The regulatory requirement had become dated in an increasingly obese and diabetic world, he pointed out.

But controversy returned to dog aspartame, as recent studies in Europe called it a "multi-potential carcinogen" linking it to cancer in the kidney.

Tabletop sweeteners are popular in India with high-profile promotional campaigns indulging the health-conscious to dump sugar and choose its alternatives. Brands such as Equal, a global product from Chicago-based Merisant, Sweetex from Boots Piramal, Sugar Free from Zydus Cadila and Sweet'Nlow from New York's Cumberland Packaging Corp are popular in India.

Some global sweeteners run elaborate labels that caution: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals." Significantly, Diet colas also carry similar labels advising against consumption by children, since it contains artificial sweeteners.

But sugar-substitute producers say that aspartame is a widely tested product, approved by various health and regulatory bodies in the world. It is available in 90 countries in more than 5,000 products till date, says an industry representative.

Further, he adds, aspartame has been reviewed and found safe by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Joint Export Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

"About 200 scientific studies with human and animals establish that consuming aspartame is safe and does not cause health problems," he said.

Dr Ravindra Mittal, Medical Advisor to Zydus Cadila, says: "Aspartame, when consumed, is broken down in the gastrointestinal tract into small amounts of common dietary components including amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. We consume the same components in much greater amounts in common foods such as milk, meat, fruits and vegetables. The body handles these amino acids in the same way it handles them from other food sources."

But the Health Ministry's worries are far from over. It is also concerned about the so-called herbal sweeteners produced from the stevia plant selling in India without required clearances, an official said.

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