Feds drop saccharin from the list of cancer-causing chemicals

But the safety debate continues.

Published May 16, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

It may still taste vile, but saccharin is no longer considered a cancer-causing substance by the government agency in charge of monitoring such things.

The artificial sweetener was placed on the National Toxicology Program's list of carcinogens in 1981, shortly after it was shown to cause bladder tumors in rats. Saccharin has been dropped from the latest list of cancer-causing chemicals because of recent studies indicating that it's not dangerous to humans.

Government researchers "discovered, basically, that the urine of a rat and the urine of a human being [were] so different" that people were unlikely to develop tumors like those that saccharin caused in rodents, says Bill Grigg, spokesperson for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which oversees the list.

The Calorie Control Council, a group supported by the diet-food industry, had pushed hard for the studies that exonerated saccharin. The council said it would now lobby for the elimination of warning labels on foods containing the sweetener.

Those labels contain the appetizing admonition that saccharin may be hazardous to your health, because it caused cancer in lab animals. Congress required those labels, but prohibited the Food and Drug Administration from taking saccharin off the market. It has remained, throughout the controversy, the most popular artificial sweetener.

Should the labeling requirement be eliminated, consumers will probably see saccharin in many more products, said Lyn Nabors, executive vice president of the Calorie Control Council.

By using combinations of artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame (better known by the trademarked name NutraSweet), manufacturers can make foods that taste better than those with only one sweetener, Nabors contends. Until now, manufacturers have been leery about creating a new product that would have to bear a warning about bladder cancer, she says.

Not everyone is happy about the government's decision to take saccharin off the carcinogen list. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which monitors
government nutrition policy, says saccharin remains a public health hazard.

Most studies dealing with the differences between human and rat urine have been directly sponsored by, or performed at the behest of, the diet food industry, argues Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Those studies put forth an interesting theory, says Jacobson. But other studies have shown associations between saccharin consumption and higher bladder cancer rates in humans. Saccharin also has been linked to ovarian, skin and uterine cancer in animals, Jacobson says.

Sugar, anyone?

By David McGuire

David McGuire is a reporter in Washington.

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