Risk Management

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 257–284 | Cite as

Risk Communication, Media Amplification and the Aspartame Scare

  • Ragnar E LofstedtEmail author


On 14 July 2005, the Ramazzini Foundation held a press conference on the cancer risks posed by the sweetener aspartame, which received worldwide media attention. Scientists at the Ramazzini Foundation found that when administered to rats for their entire life span, aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in more than 6,000 food and pharmaceutical products, induces an increase in lymphomas and leukaemias in female rats. This study showed that aspartame causes cancer and was published online in the Foundation's in-house journal European Journal of Oncology. After a second publication on aspartame by the same institute, a number of scientists and European regulators started to question the validity of Ramazzini's findings. Events culminated following the publication of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) expert opinion on 5 May 2006 and the resulting press conference in Rome where the Authority announced that the Ramazzini study was problematic. It pointed out:
  • The slight increase in cancers known as lymphomas and leukaemias in the treated rats was considered to be unrelated to the aspartame treatment, and most likely attributed to the high background incidence of inflammatory changes in the lung.

  • There was no dose–response relationship with respect to increasing doses of aspartame.

  • With regard to the malignant tumours of the peripheral nerves, the numbers of tumours were low with no clear dose–response relationship over a wide dose range.

  • The (cancer) findings in the kidney, ureter and bladder, observed mainly in female rats, were not specific to aspartame.

This paper evaluates the communication and active social amplification of Ramazzini's research on aspartame, from the time of Ramazzini's initial press conference to the time of EFSA's press conference, and is based on interviews with relevant regulators (most notably EFSA), scientists, stakeholders (industrialists, consumer representatives) and the media. The findings of the study note that the communication strategies used by the Ramazzini Foundation were not transparent, were focused on sensationalizing the results, were used to actively mislead the media and did not meet proper risk communication criteria.


aspartame risk communication social amplification media Ramazzini artificial sweeteners 



I am indebted to the following people who have either provided me with information or commented on earlier versions of this paper: Asa Boholm, Frederic Bouder, Baruch Fischhoff, Andrew Jack, Judy Larkin, Sam Luoma, Andrea Oates, Ortwin Renn, Anne-Katrine Schlag, Laura Smilie, Marjorlein van Asselt, as well as officials at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), DG SANCO, the Swedish Food Administration, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Coca Cola Corporation and the International Sweeteners Association (ISA). The research on which this article is based was funded by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) and the US National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.


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© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College LondonLondonUK

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