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ASPARTAME: WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW CAN HURT YOU
If a product is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and
composed of natural ingredients, would you assume it is safe to consume?
If the same product is an artificial sweetener, would you assume it helps
control your weight? Millions of people use aspartame, the artificial sweetener
known as NutraSweet™, with these assumptions in mind. Aspartame can be
found in thousands of products such as diet soda, yogurt, and over-the-counter
medicines to name a few. However, aspartame's tainted history of approval
and potentially toxic ingredients cast a serious doubt on the safety of
this sugar substitute. Furthermore, aspartame may actually increase your
appetite (Farber 52).
While FDA approval may signal the green light for safe consumption, 85 percent of all complaints registered with the FDA are for adverse reactions to aspartame, including five reported deaths (The Deadly Deception la). A closer look at the unscientific studies, suspicious approval methods, and its harmful ingredients, reveal the hidden dangers of this artificial sweetener. In reality, aspartame poses a public health threat. Let's examine the following three myths to conclude why you should avoid aspartame: first, FDA approval means aspartame is safe to consume; second, natural ingredients imply "not harmful"; and third, it helps control weight gain.
FDA Approval Means Safe
"Aspartame was the most studied additive ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration," argues Martha Stone, Nutrition Advisor and professor at Colorado State University. Stone, an advocate for aspartame, claims that "aspartame wouldn't have gotten to the market if it caused problems in humans" (qtd. In Castrone 12D). Does "most studied" imply safe for human consumption? More importantly, what were the results of these studies and how was aspartame approved? An in depth look at the history of aspartame approval reveals a trail of suspicious methods and possible collusion between the FDA and the G. D. Searle company, manufacturer of aspartame.
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a chemist from the Searle company (Farber 53). After researching their product to determine its safety, Searle submitted tests to the FDA for the approval of aspartame. According to The Deadly Deception, compiled by the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, the FDA approved aspartame in 1974 for limited use based on the tests selected by Searle. After the approval, the FDA learned that some of Searle's other products had serious side effects. Also, a study done by Dr. John Olney, research psychiatrist from the Washington School of Medicine, revealed that holes in the brains of mice appeared after the consumption of aspartic acid, a major ingredient in aspartame. This study was submitted to the FDA after they had already approved aspartame for limited use. This new evidence prompted the FDA to organize an internal Task Force to investigate Searle's original research (7-8).
In their investigation, the FDA 1975 Task Force reviewed a study done for Searle in 1969 by Dr. Harry Waisman, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin. The study involved feeding aspartame mixed with milk to seven infant monkeys. After 300 days, five monkeys had gran mal seizures and one died. Dr. Waisman died before all of his studies were completed. The Task Force uncovered that when Searle had submitted the Waisman study to the FDA, all the negative data had been omitted (The Deadly Deception 6-7).
The Task Force also discovered that questionable lab practices had been performed by researchers from Searle. In a summary of their investigation, the Task Force concluded:
We have uncovered serious deficiencies in Searle's integrity in conducting high quality animal research to accurately determine or characterize the toxic potential of its products. . . . The cumulative findings of problems within and across the studies we investigated reveal a pattern of conduct which compromises the scientific integrity of the studies. (Qtd. in The Deadly Deception 8-9).
This investigation revealed that Searle researchers had cut out tumors in animals that had been fed aspartame and neglected to report all of them or check for cancer. Also, animals that were "reported as dead, were later reported alive again" (The Deadly Deception 9).
Other findings of the Task Force included "falsified data" from another Searle product, the Copper 7-IUD, a birth control device. This product had to be pulled off the shelves due to a $9,000,000 lawsuit. Searle lost even though they claimed the IUD was safe (The Deadly Deception 8).
As a result of the findings of the 1975 Task Force, a smaller Task Force was assigned in 1977 to investigate Searle's original research even further. This investigation uncovered that Searle had again falsified data by submitting inaccurate blood tests. Apparently, they had substituted unrelated animal tests because of instrument problems. In another study, a closer look revealed that uterine tumors had developed in some test animals. Searle "admitted" that these tumors were related to the ingestion of a breakdown product of aspartame, Diketopiperazine (The Deadly Deception 10).
Due to the 1977 Task Force findings, FDA ordered a grand jury investigation of Searle's aspartame studies. Assistant U.S. Attorney, William Conlon, and U.S. Attorney, Thomas Sullivan, failed to start any legal action against Searle concerning aspartame testing. Consequently, time ran out and the grand jury investigation terminated. Conlon was then hired by the law firm that represented Searle. It is interesting to note that this was not the first time Searle had been involved in a grand jury investigation. They had been accused of unreported tumors in the testing of their two drugs, Flagyl and Aldactone (The Deadly Deception 10-11).
According to an article in Technology Review, aspartame came up for approval again in 1980. This time the FDA recommended that a Public Board of Inquiry be created to dettermine aspartame's safety. The Board was composed of three scientists. They "recommended keeping aspartame off the market until further animal tests could show that it did not cause tumors" (Farber 53).
The disapproval of aspartame by the Public Board of Inquiry wasn't enough. The Deadly Deception states that a five member Commissioner's Team of Scientists was then formed to look at the results of the Public Board of Inquiry conclusions. Three scientists voted against approval and two scientists voted for approval. Inexplicably, a sixth member joined the team with a vote of "yes" to the approval of aspartame creating a deadlock. Dr. Goyan, the FDA Commissioner, decided not to approve aspartame at this time (13, 16).
In April of 1981, Dr. Arthur Hayes became the new Commissioner. Searle applied again for approval of aspartame. A few months later, Dr. Hayes approved aspartame for use in dry foods. In 1983, he approved aspartame for use in diet soft drinks (The Deadly Deception 14-15). One month later, Dr. Hayes left the FDA and within three months he was working for Searle's advertising agency, Burson-Marsteller (Farber 53).
Aspartame's history of approval speaks for itself. The Searle company, whose sales were 700 million in 1992 (Therrien 42), had much to gain from the approval of aspartame. After researching their own product, Searle selectively chose the tests and then submitted them to the FDA. How can Searle, the company who stands to profit, determine which reports are to be given to the FDA? An instant bias is created when this is allowed to happen. Even when independent researchers, such as Olney and Waisman, were approached by Searle to conduct safety tests, Searle withheld important information that these researchers had discovered. The Searle company's effort to produce a clear picture on the safety of aspartame is at best a weak attempt. Falsified data, unscientific lab practices, and a history of problems with some of their other products makes it hard to believe that Searle's concern for the public's health takes precedence over financial gains.
The FDA should be the objective source to verify if Searle's research is valid. The FDA has the final approval and the public depends on them to determine the safety of a product. In this particular case, the repeated reviewing of aspartame studies by forming two task forces, a Public Board of Inquiry, and two teams of scientists seems redundant if not suspicious. The research indicating tumors and falsifying of data resurfaced every time. It appears that all of these attempts were to ultimately get aspartame approved, not to determine it's safety. If the FDA had been really concerned, they should have insisted on reviewing all of the original research before it was approved for limited use in 1974. Even if the FDA's repeated attempts to investigate aspartame's safety were legitimate, ultimately, it was Commissioner Hayes' responsibility to determine if this product should enter the market. When he approved aspartame, it was more than questionable if his intentions were sincere. His employment with FDA was just long enough to get aspartame approved and then he conveniently quit and was hired by a Searle related company! How can we rely on the FDA to make the right decisions concerning aspartame approval if we are suspicious of their motives?
How does all this relate to the safety of aspartame? First we must explore what safe means. The FDA defines safe as a "reasonable certainty of no harm" (Farber 48). Searle's evaluation of aspartame's safety was compromised when they withheld negative data and supplied inaccurate test results. Without valid research, "reasonable certainty of no harm" is difficult to determine. How can aspartame be on the market if the FDA and Searle failed to determine whether it was safe or not?
Brain tumors and seizures in aspartame-fed animals indicate a possible risk to humans. The dictionary definition of safe means "not presenting or involving any danger or risk" (Webster's 877). Does this mean aspartame is not safe? The answer lies in the hands of the public. Although aspartame was not tested on humans before its approval, it now has been tested on the public by default. Over 200 million Americans consume aspartame products (Weininger 1/ZZ1). We have been the guinea pigs in the testing of aspartame without even knowing it. A look at aspartame's ingredients and its devastating effects on human beings provide the evidence for avoiding all aspartame products.
Natural Ingredients Imply "Not Harmful"
"The building blocks of protein" and "your body cannot distinguish between the amino acids in aspartame and milk" (Deskins G1) are common phrases used to describe the ingredients in aspartame. These analogies are used to convince the public that aspartame is as safe as milk, or other protein foods. According to Dr. H. J. Roberts, who was listed in "The Best Doctors in the U.S.," it is true that aspartame is composed of the same amino acids that can be found in protein foods. However, there are only two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, that are in aspartame while protein foods contain many different amino acids. When aspartame is ingested, it floods the bloodstream with these two amino acids while protein foods, on the other hand, have other amino acids which "neutralize" and eliminate this sudden flooding (30). Like taking words out of context, taking amino acids out of their natural form might cause problems. A closer look at aspartame's ingredients and the adverse reactions reported by thousands of people reveal the dangers of this artificial sweetener.
Dr. Roberts states in his book, Aspartame Is it Safe?, that aspartame's three components are phenylalanine (50 percent), aspartic acid (40 percent), and methanol (10 percent). When aspartame is exposed to heat or prolonged storage, it breaks down into metabolites. One of these breakdown products is Diketopiperazine, a toxic metabolite that is not usually found in our diet. The effects of these different metabolites are unknown (27, 38-40).
According to an article in Consumer Reports, food and beverages containing phenylalanine, the major ingredient in aspartame, must be labeled due to the genetic disorder, phenylketonuria (PKU). The U.S. carries a warning on all aspartame products to alert people with PKU (580). People with this genetic disorder lack the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalanine and therefore it "accumulates" in the body and can "cause severe mental retardation" (Roberts 33). According to Steven Farber, Ph.D. candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are an "estimated 10 million people who are carriers and may not know it." He states that these PKU carriers are also at risk because "they cannot degrade phenylalanine as effectively as normal individuals and may be sensitive to increased levels in their diets" (48).
Phenylketonurics and PKU carriers are not the only people that should avoid phenylalanine. Dr. Louis J. Elsas, II, Director of Medical Genetics at Emory University School of Medicine, "recommends that pregnant women avoid aspartame sweeteners" because it is unknown what quantity is considered safe (qtd. In Assc. Of Birth Defect Children 2). Dr. Roberts also suggests to avoid aspartame products during pregnancy due to increased levels of phenylalanine on the "fetal side of the placenta." Increases levels of phenylalanine may "interfere with the growth of the fetus brain" (181).
In an article published in the Association of Birth Defect Children, Karen Mills argues that aspartame may be responsible for her son's health problems. Unaware of the dangers of aspartame, she consumed four to six diet sodas a day and also took phenylalanine capsules to relieve fatigue during her pregnancy. She was in good health and did not smoke or drink during this time. Her pregnancy was considered normal and prenatal testing ruled out any genetic birth defects. Her delivery was also normal. When her son Brandon was born, he was severely retarded with serious neurological problems. All of his x-rays, genetic studies, and blood tests came back normal. Karen states, "I am suspicious that NutraSweet™ could be a contributing factor in Brandon's situation since there are no physical or genetic causes revealed for his neurological problems" (2).
Aspartic acid (aspartame) and glutamate (ingredient in monosodium glutamate) have been labeled as excitotoxins, which Dr. Russell Blaylock, author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, defines as "a group of excitatory amino acids that can cause sensitive neurons to die" (226). An article in the Orlando Sentinel Tribune states, "according to Blaylock, a single meal may contain several of these additives . . . given a high enough dose can include brain lesions." Blaylock is concerned that "hundreds of millions of infants and young children are at great risk and their parents are not even aware of it" (qtd. In Bonvie and Bonvie G1).
The last component of aspartame is methanol, better known as wood alcohol, a "deadly poison," claims Dr. Roberts. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends less than eight milligrams per day of methanol. A typical liter of an aspartame diet soda contains approximately 55 milligrams. Complications of methanol poisoning include blindness, brain swelling, pancreatitis, numbness, shooting pains, cardiac changes, and death (28, 42-45). According to Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, when ingested, methanol breaks down into formaldehyde, "known to cause cancer, accumulating slowly without detection in the body" (The Deadly Deception 2).
Eric Soto was a victim of methanol poisoning. In 1989, when Eric was diagnosed with diabetes, he started consuming aspartame products to avoid sugar. Soon after, Eric complained of numbness in his fingers. After seeing a doctor for this problem, it was suggested that he have surgery to correct a wrist nerve. Before he went in for surgery, a black spot appeared over his left eye. After being examined by an opthamologist, Eric was admitted to the hospital for possible methanol poisoning. He decided to stop using aspartame products after hearing about the dangers from a friend. The damage to Eric's eyes was permanent, but the numbness in his fingers stopped even though doctors said it could only be corrected by surgery (The Deadly Deception B4).
Eric Soto is not the only person to suffer from aspartame related health problems. Mary Stoddard, president of Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, claims that nearly 10,000 complaints have been reported to this non-profit organization. The following symptoms are listed on the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network Fact Sheet:
headaches, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, numbness, blurred vision, blindness and other eye problems, memory loss, slurred speech, depression, personality changes, hyperactivity, stomach disorders, seizures, skin lesions, rashes, anxiety attacks, muscle cramping and joint pain, loss of energy, symptoms mimicking heart attacks, hearing loss and ear ringing, and loss or change of taste. (The Deadly Deception 1)
Included in these complaints are "hundreds of pilots who have reported life threatening adverse reactions due to aspartame," according to Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, in an article from General Aviation News. Michael Collins, former pilot, suffered from seizures whenever he drank diet soda. When he stopped using aspartame products, he remained seizure-free. Unfortunately, he lost his medical certification and can no longer fly (qtd. in Hicks 2).
While seizures are common among aspartame users, headaches are the most common complaint (Roberts 95). According to Caroline B. Kline, nutrition consultant, eighteen million Americans suffer from migraines. In her magazine article, "Migraine Makers," she suggests that diet could be one of the causes of these severe headaches. Aspartame was listed as possible culprit (207).
Americans are not the only people worried about the safety of aspartame. In 1988, the Mexican government issued a detailed warning to be put on diet sodas that contain aspartame (Bouleau 66). The label on these diet sodas reads:
This product should not be consumed by individuals who are allergic to phenylalanine. Consumption by pregnant women and children under 7 is not recommended. Users should follow a balanced diet. Consumption by diabetics must be authorized by a physician, (Bouleau 66).
If a product has to have this many warnings, how can it possibly be on the market?
The FDA has the answer. Thomas Wilcox, FDA spokesman, claims that "some people don't tolerate aspartame, but the reports to the FDA aren't sufficient to warrant a change in the product's classification. . . . Unless there is shown to be some very common serious effect . . . you don't want to deprive the entire population of the product" (qtd. in Bonvie and Bonvie G1). How serious do the side effects have to be and how many people have to be affected before this product is pulled off the market? When you start to add up the Phenylketonurics, the 10 million PKU carriers, migraine sufferers, diabetics, children, and pregnant women, who are all possible victims of aspartame poisoning, it seems significant enough to ban the use of aspartame. Don't these people who are at risk or have already suffered count? Depriving people of their health seems more serious than "depriving the entire population" of a sugar substitute.
What about the people who assume aspartame is safe? Is it fair to put these people at risk? Even cigarettes and drugs have warnings on them to alert the public of possible side effects and dangers. Aspartame only has one warning for PKU. How can people make a wise choice if they aren't even warned of the dangers? The warning label would have to be a very lengthy to properly warn all people. The only solution is to stop aspartame consumption by pulling it off the market. This would prevent people from unnecessary harm, especially those who are unaware of the dangers.
Even if you are aware of the dangers and are trying to avoid aspartame, you might have to spend more time reading labels. The familiar NutraSweet™ logo might not appear on all aspartame products. The patent on aspartame held by Searle expired in December of 1992, allowing other companies besides the NutraSweet™ Company to produce aspartame (Therrien 42). (NutraSweet™ Co. and G. D. Searle are divisions of the Monsanto Company). The only clue now on some products is "aspartame" listed in the ingredients and a phenylalanine warning.
If you're still not convinced by the tainted history of aspartame or its harmful ingredients and are using it to help control your weight, think again. Studies show that this may not be the case.
Helps Control Weight Gain
"I drank diet soda for the obvious reason--to avoid sugar and to avoid weight gain" claims a businesswoman in a case reported to Dr. Roberts (qtd. In Roberts 147). It's not unusual for people who are dieting to reach for an aspartame product verses a product containing sugar. Aspartame is "200 times sweeter" than ordinary sugar so fewer calories are consumed (Deskins G1). With a weight conscious society, fewer calories can be attractive. However, a closer look shows that aspartame may not help control weight gain.
Outlined in the following list are some reasons why aspartame might not be effective in controlling weight:
1. According to an article in Technology Review, "aspartame may actually stimulate appetite and bring on a craving for carbohydrates" (Farber 52). 2. An article in Utne Reader claims, "researchers believe that any kind of sweet taste signals body cells to store carbohydrates and fats, which in turn causes the body to crave more food" (Lamb 16). 3. From the San Francisco Chronicle, Jean Weininger states that "studies have shown that people who use artificial sweeteners don't necessarily reduce their consumption of sugar -- or their total calorie intake. . . . Having a diet soda makes it okay to eat a double cheeseburger and a chocolate mousse pie" (1/ZZ1). 4. "The American Cancer Society (1986) documented the fact that persons using artificial sweeteners gain more weight than those who avoid them" (Roberts 150)
Whether you are trying to lose pounds or maintain your weight, using an artificial sweetener such as aspartame does not seem to have any significant effect on weight control. Those extra calories you saved by drinking a diet pop won't make much of a difference if you still need to satisfy your hunger and indulge in several cookies later. If it is actually increasing your appetite, why use it? Common sense tells you that proper diet and exercise are more beneficial. Even if you believe that aspartame may aid in dieting, is this worth risking your health?
FDA approval and natural ingredients may signal safety at first, but the mounting evidence against aspartame reveals many hidden dangers and possible risks. If you are experiencing any of the adverse reactions, stop using aspartame and see if the symptoms disappear. Now that you are aware of the problems with aspartame, inform others of the symptoms of aspartame poisoning. Notify the FDA of any adverse reactions that you may experience and encourage others to do the same. Don't just stop using aspartame, but make a difference by returning any aspartame products you may now have. If sales go down, hopefully aspartame will be pulled off the market and put an end to the aspartame dilemma.
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Blaylock, Russell L. Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Santa Fe: Health Press, 1994.
Bonvie, Bill and Linda. "What's Eating Kids? Maybe It's Their Diets." Orlando Sentinel Tribune 12 Mar. 1995: G1.
Bouleau, Cecilia. "Diet Coke Changes as Mexico Officials Sour on Saccharin." Advertising Age 23 May 1988: 66.
Castrone, Linda. "Favorable Research Sweetens Aspartame." Rocky Mountain News 24 Aug. 1994, Ed. F: 12D.
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The Deadly Deception. Aspartame Consumer Safety Network. Dallas: 1994.
Deskins, Barbara. "Aspartame Isn't Linked to Cancer." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 21 Aug. 1994; G1.
Farber, Steven A. "The Price of Sweetness." Technology Review Jan. 1990: 46-53.
Hicks, Megan. "NutraSweet. . .Too Good to be True?" General Aviation News 31 Jul. 1989: 2.
Kline, Caroline B. "Migraine Makers." Ladies Home Journal Oct. 1994: 207.
Lamb, Lynette. "Just a Spoonful of Aspartame." Utne Reader July/Aug. 1988: 16-17.
Roberts, H.J. Aspartame (NutraSweet) Is it Safe?. Philadelphia: The Charles Press, 1990.
Stoddard, Mary. Personal phone interview. March 1995.
Therrien, Lois. "How Sweet it Isn't at NutraSweet." Business Week 14 Dec. 1992: 42.
Webster's Dictionary. Encyclopedic Edition. New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc., 1989.
Weininger, Jean. "Sweet Talk." The San Francisco Chronicle 4 Jan. 1995, final ed.: 1/ZZ1.