Soft drink giant PepsiCo recently announced its plans to stop sweetening Diet Pepsi with aspartame in response to growing consumer concern, yet the company, regulators and many medical authorities say the potential detrimental effect of the artificial sweetener on human health is overblown. So, what's really going on here and who should you believe?
The tricky thing is that there's lots of conflicting information out there on the safety of aspartame, and there's almost as much conflicting information out there on the scientific quality of that primary information. In short, it's a rabbit hole of never-ending argument.
The full history of Aspartame is one plagued by controversy almost since the day in 1965 when it was accidentally discovered by a chemist named James M. Schlatter. He was working on an anti-ulcer drug and found that his concoction had a pleasant, sweet taste. After a few more years of testing, the pharmaceutical company that employed Schlatter, G.D. Searle & Co., decided to take advantage of the damaged reputation of the existing sugar substitutes of the time (cyclamate was banned in 1969, giving saccharine a virtual monopoly, but it too was plagued by health concerns and building calls for a ban) and petition for the approval by the American Food and Drug Administration for aspartame to be sold as a food additive.
That petition was filed in 1973 and was technically approved the following year, but approval was then delayed when concerns surfaced about the methods and research procedures Searle used to prove the safety of aspartame.
What followed for the next seven years was a series of audits, inquiries and even a grand jury investigation into both the safety of aspartame and the internal practices at Searle. While a board of inquiry declared in 1980 that more testing was required of aspartame due to concerns of possible carcinogenicity, the FDA commissioner found errors in the board's calculations of the potential risks and overruled its decision. In 1981 FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. ruled that aspartame was safe and approved its use as a tabletop sweetener and in dry goods; it was later approved for use in soft drinks in 1983.
While the initial science behind aspartame's safety was eventually validated, the climate of controversy and suspicion under which aspartame came to market has never abated and has flared up at certain times over the last three decades.