Formaldehyde officially ‘cancer-causing’ (and the common foodstuff that increases our exposure to this chemical)

Reuters recently reported here that the US Government has added the chemical formaldehyde to its official list of cancer-causing agents. You’ll learn from the Reuters piece that formaldehyde is found in things like some plastics and embalming fluid. But what you won’t learn from the piece is that it can be derived from our diet too.

Once source of formaldehyde is methanol (also known as ‘wood alcohol’), which the body can form from the digestion of the artificial sweetener aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal, Canderel). It has been demonstrated in animals that low-level ingestion of aspartame can lead to formaldehyde accumulation in the various parts of the body including the liver and brain [1]. In addition, several human studies have found that chronic, low-level formaldehyde exposure has been linked with a variety of health issues including headaches [2-4], fatigue [2,3], chest tightness [4], nausea and lack of concentration [2], seizures and behavioural impairment [4].

While long-term studies of the effects of aspartame have not been performed in humans (one might ask why…), they have been done in animals. In one study, researchers fed aspartame to rats from the age of 8 weeks until they died [5].

Rats consuming aspartame were found to be at significantly increased risk of several forms of cancer including lymphoma and leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells).

An increased risk of these conditions was found even at levels of aspartame intake lower than the official upper limit for humans: While in Europe intakes of 40 mg of aspartame per kg of body weight per day are considered safe, an increased risk in cancer was seen in rats consuming just half this amount.

In Europe, the body entrusted with assessing the safety of aspartame is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Recently, two European members of parliament (MEPs) accused the EFSA of not assessing scientific data on aspartame properly, and even losing crucial information. You can read more about this here.

Here’s a couple of things we can be quite confident in, though:

Consuming aspartame increases formaldehyde exposure.

Formaldehyde causes cancer.

My advice would be to avoid aspartame (unless, of course, you don’t care whether you get cancer or not).


1. Trocho C, et al. Formaldehyde Derived From Dietary Aspartame Binds to Tissue Components in vivo. Life Sciences 1998 63;5:337

2. Main DM, et al. Health Effects of Low-Level Exposure to Formaldehyde. Journal of Occupational Medicine 1983 25;896-900

3. Olsen JH, et al. Formaldehyde induced symptoms in day care centers. American Industrial Hygeine Association Journal 43;5 366-370

4. Burdach S, et al. Damages to health in schools. Complaints caused by the use of formaldehyde-emitting materials in school buildings. Fortschritte Med 1980;98(11):379-384

5. Soffritti M, et al. First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(3):379-85

20 Responses to Formaldehyde officially ‘cancer-causing’ (and the common foodstuff that increases our exposure to this chemical)

  1. Againstthegrain 15 June 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Formaldehyde is also in some chemical hair treatments, particularly in hair straightening formulas such as “Brazilian blowouts”. The “beauty” industry is full of nasty chemicals that pose huge risks for consumers and workers alike.

  2. Judith Waldman 17 June 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    There is also formaldehyde in some nail polishes. It is advisable therefore to find some called “organic” or at least without this and other hazardous chemicals, good brands are Ossie, Nailgirls, China Glaze.

  3. Aspartame Diva 17 June 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    Love this article – I’ve been looking for something about the new formaldehyde info and it’s relation to aspartame! Going to cite this in my blog, I’ll let you know when – thank you!

    Mission Possible Canada

  4. mrs smith 17 June 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Hoorah! I am allergic to formaldehyde, what a nightmare. Apart from beauty products, it is used in clothes, medicines, to fumigate aeroplanes. The list is endless. One of the most useful sites I have found, is:

  5. Ethel goodman 17 June 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Is formaldehyde also in decaf tea and coffee?

  6. Jennifer Eloff 17 June 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Found this: Seems to refute some of this?

  7. John Briffa 17 June 2011 at 9:14 pm #


    I wonder what John Reeve makes of the fact that aspartame at half the level permitted in the human diet gives animals cancer. What’s you’re view on this finding, actually?

  8. Jennifer Eloff 19 June 2011 at 2:54 am #

    Clearly there is a problem with aspartame. I think half the amount that a human can have is still way too much for a little rat, but I’d say it’s pretty scary all the same – the fact that they do get cancer.

  9. John Briffa 19 June 2011 at 6:36 am #


    The amount fed to the rats was half the amount permitted in the human diet as adjusted according to weight.

  10. mrs smith 19 June 2011 at 9:55 am #

    My children were born in 1972 and 1974. Sometime around that time, everyone was talking about the fact that, allegedly, aspartame caused cancer. I have just found this:

  11. mrs smith 19 June 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Regarding decaf tea and coffee, the following gives an insight

  12. Alice 20 June 2011 at 1:12 am #

    I was recommended to use these detox patches for the feet, .They are sold in lots of chemists. I noticed one of the ingredients is ‘wood vinegar’, does this mean they may have levels of formaldehyde in them?

  13. Reijo Laatikainen 20 June 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Let’s not forget that smoking is a big source of formaldehyde.

    I’m interested in what is the difference in health effects of acetaldehyde or formaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is also present in many food items and substantially formed from alcohol (and smoking again). See for example: Salaspuro,

  14. Laura Corkell 20 June 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    I have a friend who has both lupus and ceoliacs and has drunk or eaten artificially sweetened products since Tab first came out in the 1970s. Does anyon know of links between use of sweetners and autoimmune problems?

  15. TIm R 21 June 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    There is also concern about levels of formaldehyde found in melamine tableware as well as (carcinogenic) primary aromatic amines (PAAs) found in black nylon kitchen utensils, both originating from China.
    The EU has published Regulation (EU) No 284/2011 which comes into effect on 1st July 2011 and seeks to tighten up on the quality of these articles imported into member states by subjecting consignments to closer inspection and sample analysis.
    That doesn’t help those who may be using such items already in circulation.
    It’s not just food products or other substances we may choose to consume or apply we need to be aware of but some of the tools and tableware used to contain or handle them…

  16. Ryan 1 July 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    Sorry, but this article is over sensationalized garbage.

    First, read the section on aspartame here:

    In summary, the experiments on rats have *never* been reproducible. In the science world, that means that the study is pretty much bogus. If a result is true, it should be reproducible. Don’t you think in 12 years somebody would have arrived to the same conclusion?

    Reviews have found no association between aspartame and cancer. These reviews have looked at numerous carcinogenicity studies in animals, epidemiologic studies in humans, as well as in vitro genotoxicity studies. These studies have found no significant evidence that aspartame causes cancer in animals, damages the genome, or causes cancer in humans at doses currently used.[8][51][53] This position is supported by multiple regulatory agencies like the FDA[60] and EFSA as well as scientific bodies such as the National Cancer Institute.[59]

    Concern about possible carcinogenic properties of aspartame was originally raised and popularized in the mainstream media by John Olney in 1970s and again in 1996 by suggesting that aspartame may be related to brain tumors. Reviews have found that these concerns were flawed, due to reliance on the ecological fallacy[61] and the purported mechanism of causing tumors being unlikely to actually cause cancer. Independent agencies such as the FDA and National Cancer Institute have reanalyzed multiple studies based on these worries and found no association between aspartame and brain cancer.[53]


    This comes from the wikipedia article on aspartame. All of those numbers after the sentences are references to scientific journals and studies, and you can see the sources at the bottom of the page here:

    In case you didn’t miss it, the NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE and the FDA disagree that there is any realistic correlation between cancer and aspartame.

  17. Chris 4 July 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    Sorry Ryan,

    interesting as the link within is the site itself has the look of having a primary function to ‘sell’ and a secondary function to ‘inform’.

    I haven’t the time to research aspartame and artificial sweeteners fully but I quite rationally sense the process of nature that shaped my species did not include exposure to aspartame in the long run and likely dictates I am not naturally suited to it either.

    Then while I acknowledge there is controversy over artificial sweeteners I am in no doubt there is a ‘strong economic force’ that dictates that folks have to constantly invent new markets and products. Once they have invented them, there is pressure to preserve them.

    Such is the strength of this strong economic force that innovative products and markets are created that serve no real purpose whatsoever yet people can be hoodwinked into thinking that they do. Such markets have been termed ‘fictional’. Fictional markets constitute growth industries in their own right and they include products that may have no real justification or may even propagate great harm. Fictional products are always vehemently defended by the industry that produces and markets them. One example of an established fictional product might be cholesterol lowering drugs, cigarettes and tobacco certainly deserve inclusion, and artificial sweeteners have the look of being ‘fictional’ too. The volume of speculative trade in global currencies, sometimes labelled ‘casino capitalism’ could be branded as an instance of ‘fictional’ markets.

    It can be quite difficult to distinguish fictional markets and products from real and virtuous ones with certainty because fictional markets are frequently shrouded in controversy, but just understanding that the two coexist helps. And realising some peoples enthusiasm to propagate or defend the trade in fictional products arises because of the ‘strong economic force’ aids an intuitive response to matters that deserve suspicion.

    My intuitive response to bodybuilding.coms’ take on artificial sweeteners is to harbour suspicion that the ‘strong economic force’ along with the sales and profit agenda may be clouding objectivity and balance in any agenda to ‘inform’.

    Building and toning muscle-mass in moderation may be promotional of good health. However, over enthusiasm for body-building, and the excesses of the industry that fuels it, I have just come to realise, has aspects that deserve (my) suspicion for being ‘fictional’.

  18. Chris 6 July 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    ‘Had these thoughts and could not resist ..

    Methanol is the constituent of methylated spirits. Methanol could be consumed as a ‘surrogate alcohol’ on the basis of intoxicating effect, but is not advised because methanol consumption can lead to blindness and death. Hence methylated spirits Has adjuncts to render it bitter and highly unpalatable to discourage abuse (by vagrants, as was suggested to me when I was young). So states around the world have regulations governing manufacture and sale of methylated spirits because it is injurious to health, yet the sale and profusion of artificial sweeteners that are converted to methanol by the process of digestion is overwhelmingly approved by regulators. Odd?

    Undertakers, embalmers certainly, ought to be up in arms. If people are being permitted to slowly and progressively ’embalm themselves’ while alive, where lies the future livelihood for embalmers? (Half in jest, of course.)


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