A really bad additive actor too often mistaken for a ‘good guy’

Posted by
March 7, 2013

Found in all kinds of foods and beverages, you need to be on the lookout to keep this toxic additive out of your diet

The second place designation in our Citizens for Health “Read Your Labels” campaign of food additives to avoid goes to a really bad actor found in many supposedly “healthy” foods as well as diet products and beverages. Although this ingredient has become totally entrenched in the marketplace, it has never been proven to be safe. In fact, studies done over 40 years ago connected it to the development of brain tumors in rodents and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys.

Even worse – school officials and health agencies are actively promoting this chemical as a healthy alternative for kids!

Number two: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal) the ‘diet devil’ in disguise

The aspartame fiasco is an example of how one bad regulatory decision can set the stage for a host of subsequent evils. In this case, the ‘original sin’ was a Food and Drug Administration commissioner’s decision more than three decades ago to ignore the agency’s own scientific advisers by clearing this laboratory-created synthetic sweetener for entry into the food supply, where it was soon firmly ensconced.

Aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet), which was accidentally discovered by a chemist working for Searle while looking  for a new ulcer drug, is made up of three neurotoxic chemicals – substances that are toxic to brain cells. (See Tuesday’s blog about other similar excitotoxins liberally added to food.)

Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner, a Washington, D.C. Attorney and author of the best-selling book The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA, along with his advocacy group managed to keep aspartame off the market for 11 years until 1981, when its use was approved over the advice of FDA scientists as well as the agency’s Public Board of Inquiry that previously had concluded that it should not be permitted in the food supply.

That official OK was about as clear an example of corporate influence in government as has ever been seen, an obvious political favor to the then head of Searle, Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald Rumsfeld) by the incoming Reagan administration for his help on the transition team. Turner summarizes the entire aspartame fiasco as a case of “political toxicity and biological toxicity working together to create toxic health problems for the public.”

Before long, thousands of aspartame-related health complaints about everything from migraines to memory loss to dizziness to vision problems were being reported to the FDA, which even acknowledged that adverse reactions might be possible, but did nothing to reverse the decision.

Today, a growing number of health-conscious consumers avoid aspartame like the plague, avoiding any product described as “low calorie” or “sugar free.” But if the dairy industry has its way, such descriptive phrases may disappear from the front of flavored milk cartons and other dairy products that contain this chemical sweetener.

Got aspartame?

The latest wrangle involving aspartame is over a petition filed by the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association to “amend the standard identity of milk” (and 17 additional dairy products). If the FDA agrees, it would allow flavored milk with added artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to be labeled as just “milk,” eliminating the now-required “low-cal” notice on the front of the package.

The dairy industry claims this would be all for the benefit of American kids. “Promoting more healthful eating practices and decreasing childhood obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing our country today,” notes the petition, which also states that the phrase “reduced calorie…” according to market research, “doesn’t appeal to children.”

But what it does reflect is that milk consumption is way down, especially in schools where the amount of calories in the products sold in school lunchrooms are starting to be “officially” limited, and the feeling of the dairy industry that in order to sell more milk – the aspartame-sweetened kind, that is – they’ve “got to hide it from the kids.”

Fortunately, a lot of American consumers and parents who have by now become familiar with aspartame’s long and ugly “rap sheet” – which includes actually promoting, rather than discouraging obesity — are no longer willing to go along with the idea that this neurotoxic additive is a “healthy” alternative to sugar, as reflected by the amount of public outrage the petition has sparked, including a counter-petition to “tell the FDA we don’t want aspartame in our milk,” and almost 15,000 comments sent into the FDA docket.

But it does leave one to wonder about how a really bad additive actor, believed to have caused brain tumors in one set of test animals and brain seizures in another (the latter after being fed a milk-based  formula), to say nothing of countless other adverse health effects, can come to be categorized  as a “safe and suitable sweetener” for chocolate milk being sold to school children.