A new review of the popular low-calorie sweetener aspartame by the federal Centers for Disease Control has found no evidence of "serious, widespread adverse health consequences" among those who consumed the sweetener in diet soft drinks and other products.
The evaluation of almost 600 complaints from aspartame users found that "a wide variety of complaints . . . are generally of a mild nature," from headaches to upset stomachs.
But the CDC scientists said most of the symptoms were so common that it was impossible to tell whether the complaints were unrelated to the sweetener or resulted, at least in part, from "an unusual sensitivity to the product" among some individuals.
To get a better grasp of any possible cause-and-effect relationship, the scientists suggested in a report to the Food and Drug Administration that more carefully controlled clinical studies would need to be conducted.
Aspartame, marketed as Nutra-Sweet by G.D. Searle & Co. of Skokie, Ill., was approved for limited uses in 1981 and for use in soft drinks in 1983. The FDA said yesterday that an estimated 70 million to 100 million people in this country have used aspartame.
After receiving the CDC report on aspartame, FDA Commissioner Frank Young said that "at this point, it looks as if it's safe. We're going to continue to monitor it. But we didn't pick up anything that would change the original opinion."
The FDA's approval of the sweetener has come under criticism and court challenge from consumer groups such as the Community Nutrition Institute. Rod Leonard, its director, said yesterday that the institute will again ask the FDA to withdraw aspartame from the market "based on CDC's finding that it cannot rule out sensitivity to the substance for some people."
Robert Shapiro, president of Searle's NutraSweet division, said in a statement that the CDC report was "good news for consumers. . . . The scientific evidence has clearly established the safety of NutraSweet." The company said it will work with the government to see if further studies of sensitivity to aspartame are needed.
The four-month CDC study looked at complaints noted by consumers, many of whom reported more than one symptom, and it found no particular pattern. Two-thirds of the complaints involved nervous system or behavioral problems such as headaches, dizziness and mood changes. One-fourth reported gastrointestinal symptoms, and 15 percent reported allergic-type reactions.
Overall, three-fourths of the complaints were from women, perhaps because they are more likely to drink diet soda.