A National Toxicology Program (NTP) subcommittee ignored a wealth of scientific data when it voted to continue listing the sweetener saccharin as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." This was the assessment of the American Council on Science and Health, which recently reviewed the data available to the NTP subcommittee. The NTP is a program within the Department of Health and Human Services whose purpose is to "provide information about possibly toxic chemicals to regulatory and research agencies and the public."
ACSH, a consortium of more than 250 scientists, charged that the four members of the seven-person subcommittee who voted to continue to list saccharin did not take into account data that strongly indicate saccharin is not a human carcinogen. The four voted against delisting in spite of the fact that two earlier subcommittees had voted in favor of delisting.
Saccharin, the oldest and most studied alternative sweetener, has been labeled a potential human carcinogen for decades, primarily on the basis of studies that showed it to cause bladder cancer in male rats when fed at extremely high doses. More recent studies have found, however, that a major reason some male rats develop bladder cancer (not all do) is because of the protein content of their urine, which is different from that of humans.
When the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first tried to ban saccharin as a potential carcinogen over 20 years ago, protests by consumers (especially people with diabetes) and the input of scientists caused Congress to call a moratorium on the ban and the moratorium has been renewed repeatedly. Millions of people with and without diabetes have used saccharin over the years with no evidence of increased incidence of cancer.
"Saccharin is currently used in a variety of low-calorie products, besides as a table-top sweetener," says ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. "Not only do we have the evidence from animal studies that the cancer-causing potential of saccharin is particular to rats, but we have many epidemiological studies that support its safety for human consumption."
Dr. Whelan notes that "the labeling of saccharin as a carcinogen is a prime example of junk science extrapolating from a few animal studies to humans. Now," she continues, "the NTP subcommittee is exacerbating the original reliance on junk science by ignoring the wealth of later evidence that saccharin is safe."
Commented Dr. Ruth Kava, ACSH's director of nutrition, "Perhaps we should be grateful that this NTP subcommittee isn't evaluating the natural carcinogens found in many of our foods aflatoxins in peanuts, for example or we might have warning labels on virtually every food on the supermarket shelves!"