ACSH (v CSPI!): Repeal of Saccharin Warning

Gary Greenberg Gary.Greenberg at Duke.edu
Thu Jan 11 07:25:39 EST 2001

January 09, 2001 

American Council on Science and Health 

(Moderator Note: ACSH is an organization routinely dubious about new
claims of environmental health dangers. Their editorials & press
releases are presented to the OEM-L forum in an effort to provoke
intellectual discussion, not as an endorsed point of view. For contrast,
see the newsletters posted from RACHEL. -G)

Repeal of Saccharin Warning Label Leaves Consumer Group with Bitter

Why CSPI is beating this dead horse 

by Elizabeth Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the self-appointed
"food police," is distressed that Congress has voted to repeal the
warning label that has appeared on saccharin since 1977. Why is the
scary little warning label soon to be a thing of the past? Because
saccharin was voted off the federal "carcinogen list" because it does
not cause cancer in people. 

This is good news for consumers because the label never had any
legitimacy in scientific reality: saccharin does not pose a human cancer
threat. But CSPI's Director Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., still argues
otherwise. He claims that saccharin causes cancer in mice and rats—and
that there is also human epidemiological evidence of a cancer link. 

Here are the facts: Saccharin was discovered in 1879. It is a white
crystalline powder 300 times sweeter than sugar. Early in the century,
saccharin was used as a substitute for sugar in canned vegetables and
beverages. Later, saccharin became popular as a sugar substitutes in the
diets of people with diabetes, obesity or gout. 

In March of 1977 the Food and Drug Administration announced that, on the
basis of animal experiments in Canada showing an excess of cancer in
male rats, it was going to ban saccharin. Americans were
furious—particularly because saccharin was then the only available
artificial sweetener at the time. Congress intervened and saved the
artificial sweetener -but slapped a warning label on the pink packets
and products containing saccharin. The warning label alerted consumers
to the fact that saccharin caused cancer in lab animals. 

There was never any credible evidence that saccharin posed a risk of
bladder or other cancer in humans. Even in the species most susceptible
to adverse effects, the male rat, saccharin is a very weak carcinogen. 

Saccharin is a unique substance: unlike any other additive, we actually
have studies of humans who have consumed large quantities of it. For
example, since diabetics are especially heavy users of saccharin, they
would likely have a particularly high risk of any adverse health effects
linked with the sweetener. However studies of diabetics have reported no
association between the use of saccharin and the occurrence of bladder

So what is CSPI's Jacobson talking about when he writes in an official
statement that "the single best epidemiological study, conducted by the
National Cancer Institute found an association between the consumption
of artificial sweeter and an increased risk of bladder cancer"? The
study he was referring to was published in the Lancet in 1980. The
article suggested a link between artificial sweeteners and bladder
cancer, but cautioned that "[i]nconsistencies in the data suggest that
the positive associations may be due to chance." 

But in the 20 years following that Lancet report, evidence gathered from
many other human studies supported the theory that the association
reported earlier was indeed just due to chance. The evidence simply did
not indicate that saccharin was a risk factor for cancer. Indeed, CSPI
seems to be the only major group of individuals in the country who still
maintain that saccharin is a cancer threat and protests the removal of
the label. 

Why is CSPI beating this dead horse? Could it be that they are concerned
that if saccharin, a substance which in high doses may cause cancer in
animals, is exonerated as a human cancer risk, that there will be a
domino effect and other alleged "carcinogens" (categorized only on the
basis only of animal studies) will also be cleared? Is CSPI afraid that
common sense and science will prevail and drown out their frequent,
strident warnings about alleged poisons and carcinogens in our food? 

Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and

Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH    Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu     Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website:                      http://occhealthnews.com


More information about the Toxicol mailing list

Send comments to us at biosci-help [At] net.bio.net