I am a general fan of Coke Light.

It contains aspartame.

And I’m not sure how common the experience is for other diet-soda drinkers, but I regularly get the “you know that’s no good for you, right?” brand of unsolicited advice. Often, from someone drinking a real coke instead.

My standard response: “Yes. But at least I’ll fit in my coffin.”

Yesterday, the European Food Safety Authority declared aspartame safe for human consumption (again), with an Acceptable Daily Intake of 40mg per kg of body weight. There is an exception: people suffering from phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disease (it’s why you get the *contains phenylalanine on Coke Light cans).

As a general observation, there’s also an exception for sugar: being diabetes, a not-so-rare condition.

The EFSA joins regulatory agencies from over 100 countries, and the World Health Organisation, in its being okay with the artificial sweetener.

The Aspartame Conspiracy Theory

Here’s the background, as promulgated by the bare-footed:

  1. In 1965, a chemist working for G. D. Searle & Company originally synthesised aspartame as part of a series of steps to build a drug to treat stomach ulcers: and he discovered it was sweet when he accidentally licked his finger.
  2. I’m not sure why he licked his finger – that seems like a remarkably foolish thing to do when working in a lab.
  3. Either way, he had a eureka moment. And then started to test it.
  4. 168 studies by GD Searle later, the FDA declared aspartame safe for human consumption in 1974.
  5. In 1975, the FDA rescinded its approval, after it became concerned about data in 11 of the 168 studies (ironically, at the time, the FDA was reviewing studies relating to Flagyl and Aldactone, two other products made by GD Searle – aspartame just got caught in the crossfire).
  6. While it was concerned about some of Searle’s methodology and practices, the FDA eventually concluded that the discrepancies in the aspartame studies were minor and did not affect the conclusions. Further studies were done, and aspartame got its FDA approval back in 1981.
  7. Some anecdotal points:
    1. A US District Attorney was requested to “open a grand jury investigation into whether two* of Searle’s aspartame studies had been falsified or were incomplete” – but he withdrew from the case when he was offered a job at Searle’s law firm in Chicago. The case was delayed, and eventually the statute of limitations expired.
      *Two out of the 168, for the record.
    2. The FDA Commissioner that gave aspartame back its approval in 1981 eventually joined Searle’s PR agency in 1983 as a senior medical advisor.
  8. In response to the above, there was the standard government enquiry, which found no signs of impropriety.
  9. And then the death knell: a 1998 chain email from one “Nancy Markle” (as mysterious as Satoshi Nakamoto), which blamed aspartame for everything from multiple sclerosis and blindness to birth defects and death.
  10. So obviously, you mustn’t use aspartame, because then you’ll catch multiple sclerosis and die.
  11. Despite all medical evidence to the contrary.

Seriously though?

What the conspiracy is actually saying:

For the last four decades, big governments, regulatory agencies, aspartame producers and Coca Cola have all been conspiring to bring you a product that will cause you death and disease because it’s in their economic interest to do so, and any evidence to the contrary is just further proof of the conspiracy, and thank God for the blog world and those do-gooding unsolicited advisors that are tirelessly campaigning to bring this truth to your attention.

It’s absurd.

Personally, I’m amazed by the blind faith in everyone’s ability to work together “in secret” to pull this off. I mean: we can’t agree on climate change, or what qualifies as a basic human right. But underneath it all, we can agree to create a conspiracy over a chemical that was discovered by an accident-prone scientist licking his finger.

Occam’s Razor

You know the old adage about the simplest explanation?

Well, here’s an alternative explanation for the goings-on in that FDA process.

  • The FDA approval process takes a really long time.
  • Almost certainly, GD Searle took some shortcuts to try and get that done quicker.
  • They got caught out trying to shortcut it.
  • So they ended up taking the four-decade-cut.

Does that make aspartame unsafe? Not really. It just means that further scrutiny was required. Further scrutiny that has happened in numerous studies since.

On a separate note, here is a list of things that will cause death when consumed in excess:

  • Food.


  • Vitamin C can cause kidney stones when you overdo the oranges.
  • Body lotions can be harmful to babies.
  • Lima beans are lethal when improperly cooked.
  • Raw almonds are filled with cyanide.
  • As are apple seeds.
  • Potatoes that have gone green can poison you.
  • Alcohol can be hazardous to your health.
  • And you’re more likely to die in a car accident.

I’m just saying that it doesn’t make economic sense. Cheaper and easier for a company to invent an alternative, or fix aspartame to make it safer.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at