By Jody McCutcheon
We’ve all used it in an attempt to stay slim and chic; Karl Lagerfeld swears he lives on the stuff, and Jean Paul Gaultier has designed cans of diet drinks filled with it, but when it comes to the artificial sweetener aspartame, there’s mounting evidence that shouts: don’t go there.
Centre stage in this sweet drama are the GD Searle & Company (now Pfizer) and the US Food and Drug Administration, while lurking deeper in the shadows is that paragon of corporate evil, Monsanto Company.
Discovered in 1965 by a scientist working for GD Searle, aspartame took a long, tortuous and terribly controversial path to eventual FDA approval, in 1983, for use in soft drinks—a development that really opened the door for mass consumption. Since then, the FDA-influenced mainstream has regarded anyone questioning aspartame’s safety, kooks and conspiracy theorists, but the rapidly growing numbers of dissenting voices, including Mission Possible, Dorway and Joseph Mercola, for starters—suggest that maybe aspartame’s safety is a topic worth investigating.
About 180 times sweeter than table sugar, aspartame is found in over 5000 products, from beverages to chewing gum to cooking sauces to children’s medicine. According to the FDA, it’s the most thoroughly studied product ever approved. That may be true, but it also happens to be the most criticised product on the market, as 80% of complaints voluntarily lodged with the FDA involve aspartame.
The first aspartame studies on infant monkeys, in 1967, did not end at all well for the monkeys. Five of seven developed grand mal seizures and one died. In 1970, a year after discovering that MSG is a neurotoxin that causes brain tumours in mice, Dr. John Olney discovered that one of aspartame’s main components, aspartic acid, also has the same effect in mice. Yet while the former findings were instrumental in ridding baby food of MSG, Olney’s aspartame studies fell on deaf ears. Searle knew of the results, yet failed to include them in the company’s application, in 1973, for FDA approval of aspartame. Despite its own scientists’ concerns, in July, 1974 the FDA approved the limited use of aspartame in dry foods.
Shortly thereafter, Olney and consumer attorney James Turner took matters to the courts.
What IS aspartame?
What exactly is the aspartame molecule made of? Ninety percent is composed of two amino acids—phenylalanine and aspartic acid—while the rest is methyl ester. Each of these components at high enough doses can cause significant and various types of damage in humans. Phenylalanine constitutes roughly 50% of the aspartame molecule. Studies show that heavy consumers of aspartame have higher levels of phenylalanine in their blood. When too much phenylalanine accumulates over time and crosses the blood-brain barrier, brain chemistry can be disrupted, causing depression and schizophrenia, and increasing the risk of seizure. Sufferers of the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria are particularly susceptible, as they can’t metabolise phenylalanine; thus it builds up to dangerous levels.
Aspartic acid constitutes another 40% of the aspartame molecule; and as Dr. Olney demonstrated with his brain-tumored mice, it isn’t exactly safe. He’d already coined “excitotoxin” to define MSG, and further applied the term to aspartic acid. An excitotoxin is basically a neurotransmitter that, in excessive amounts, over-stimulates nuerons until they die. Such gradual damage to the nervous system can produce memory loss, degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and other neurological issues.
Aspartame’s final 10% consists of methyl ester, which breaks down upon digestion into methanol, also known as wood alcohol, which can cause blindness. Over time, methanol/wood alcohol builds up and further breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and probable neurotoxin. The pro-aspartame camp argues that methanol occurs naturally, in items like fruit and alcohol. But do they mention that this naturally occurring methanol is accompanied by ethanol, which counteracts the methanol? Or that methanol in fruit is bound to pectin, which protects the body from methanol’s deleterious effects? No, but if you were paid to argue in favour of aspartame, would you?
Aspartame Facts: It’s Found Harmful in Court: Round 1
Olney and Turner petitioned for a public hearing on aspartame’s safety concerns in August, 1974, and the FDA soon rescinded its approval. In 1976, FDA investigations into Searle’s laboratory practices found deficiencies in method, and inaccuracy and manipulation of data aplenty. Eight months later, the FDA formally requested that the US Attorney office begin grand jury proceedings into whether Searle misrepresented and concealed evidence about aspartame safety.
Within a month of being appointed to head up the grand jury, US Attorney Sam Skinner was offered a job by Searle’s law firm, Sidley and Austin. He took it, of course. Skinner’s replacement, assistant US Attorney William Conlon, let the statute of limitations expire on the Searle prosecution. Fifteen months later, he too would be hired by Sidley and Austin. All told, at least seven FDA agents would be granted jobs with Searle, or Searle’s satellite firms, or somewhere else in the sweetener/soft-drink industry, after helping to get aspartame approved.
Also in 1977, Searle hired Donald Rumsfeld as CEO. Rumsfeld was fresh off his first stint as US Secretary of Defense, surely with some expedient connections at his disposal. Despite mounting FDA scrutiny and a 1980 public board of inquiry’s unanimous rejection of aspartame use without further studies, Rumsfeld would manage to get aspartame approved with a campaign light on facts and science and heavy on politics and economics.
In 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as US President, GD Searle reapplied for aspartame approval. One of Reagan’s first duties in the oval office was to fire the presiding FDA Commissioner and handpick a new Commissioner he could manipulate. Sure enough, Arthur Hull Hayes soon overruled the public board of inquiry and approved aspartame for use in dry products. By 1983, aspartame had been approved for use in soft drinks, and Hayes had thereafter resigned in a cloud of controversy, soon landing a lucrative job in Searle’s (and Monsanto’s) public relations firm.
Following approval in America, aspartame secured clearance in England through a clandestine deal between Searle representatives and a British regulatory agent. The ‘special relationship’ between the USA and the UK paved the way for worldwide approval and sales of aspartame.
The Brain Tumour Connection
Once ingested, aspartame’s components gradually break down into a substance called diketopiperazine (DKP). It’s closely related, chemically, to a carcinogenic compound that induces cancer in many exposed animals, and plenty of evidence suggests it’s also a brain-tumor agent. Do a simple Google search, though, and you’ll find that virtually every shred of evidence linking DKP to these problems springs from the myriad anti-aspartame articles and entries—authored, presumably, by the aforementioned “kooks and conspiracy theorists.”
But consider that between 1984 and 1985, reported incidences of brain tumours in the US suddenly went up 10%. Remember, that’s just a year or two after aspartame was approved in soft drinks. And considering all the neurotoxic, metabolic, allergenic and carcinogenic effects mentioned above, it’s not entirely shocking to learn that aspartame can exacerbate or reproduce symptoms from many disorders and diseases, like ADD, lupus, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue. These symptoms usually disappear with discontinuation of aspartame, and reappear upon reintroduction.
Even the Centre for Disease Control had its concerns, producing a 146-page report that details aspartame hazards like cardiac arrest, seizure, liver disorder, mood alteration, even death, and recommends further aspartame studies. But that report was suppressed, and the CDC later released a whitewashed summary on its website. Both the FDA and CDC kowtowed to the powerful aspartame lobby, aka the Ronnie and Donnie show.
With all the controversy over aspartame, it’s somewhat surprising that another company would be interested in acquiring GD Searle. Yet in 1985, that’s exactly what the Monsanto Food Company did. Along with the rest of Searle’s assets, Monsanto received the patent for NutraSweet, aka aspartame. The company that created DDT, Agent Orange and PCB’s, and which is also a super-producer of genetically modified crop seed, now had another controversial product under its umbrella. In return, Searle’s esteemed CEO, a certain Mr. Donald Rumsfeld, reportedly copped a $12 million dollar bonus.
Recall how then-FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes took a job with the PR firm representing both Searle and Monsanto shortly after approving aspartame, and you’ll begin to understand the intimacy of the ménage-a-trois between the Reagan-era FDA, Searle and Monsanto. Without that triangulation of manipulation, would aspartame have had a chance?
No Option But Die
Those in the know turned to another sweetener: Stevia. This wild plant, grown in South America and Asia, is about 100 times sweeter than sugar, and is completely natural. It’s been cultivated and consumed South America for centuries, and has been used in commercial food production in Japan since the 1960s. The plant not only saves your teeth and waistline from the effects of sugar, but also stabilises blood sugar, nourishes the pancreas, softens the skin, clears blemishes, fights bacteria in the mouth, all whilst making food taste more delicious.
Threatened by the idea of non-patentable, all-natural Stevia taking aspartame’s place in the market, Monsanto lobbied to stunt Stevia imports to the West by declaring it ‘insufficiently tested’ to be permitted as a foodstuff by the FDA, although it could be used as a ‘dietary supplement’.
Despite a full FDA approval, word of Stevia spread, and so today, Cargill, an industrial food producer on the same level of Monsanto, has created a ‘Stevia based product’ called Truvia, which is now being tested for use in diet drinks and other consumables.
That may sound like good news, but it’s not–Truvia is anything but natural, and a lawsuit was recently filed against Cargill, alleging that it misleads consumers by hiding the fact that Truvia is highly chemically processed, containing a synthetically made bulking agent called erythritol, as well as Red-A steviol glycosides. In other words, Cargill found a way to make a product based on Stevia that is patentable, but not at all as healthy as the natural plant extract still sold in health stores.
It would be a shame if the public was duped once again by the political minds of the FDA into believing that ‘stevia based’ products like Truvia were healthy, and even worse still if people still threaten their health with aspartame, but diet drink and sugarless gum consumption is still high.
Why Won’t We Stop?
Maybe the problem is that aspartame is regulated as a food and not as a drug, so manufacturers needn’t report product-induced adverse reactions. Or maybe it’s because we buy into the heavily marketed line that aspartame is A-OK. But when you read the evidence, such as that above, or learn some information, such as the fact that the US Air Force has warned its pilots to abstain from aspartame due to risk of seizures or vertigo, you may want to ask yourself: would you really prefer risking cancer and brain damage over having a few extra kilos?