Aspartame still a ‘devil in disguise’ – but studies steadily eroding its phony ‘good guy’ image

Posted by
March 26, 2015

Aspartame chemical formula on school chalkboard

Although we’ve moved it from second to fourth place among the top ten additives to be avoided in our countdown to the Citizens for Health “Read Your Labels” Day April 11, the neurotoxic artificial sweetener aspartame can still be found in any number of products, and is still often being misrepresented as a “healthy” alternative to caloric sweeteners.

There have, however, been encouraging indications that the food industry is starting to have reservations about it, such as the decision last summer to remove it from Yoplait “Lite” Yogurt (where its presence turned a supposedly healthy product into a distinctly unhealthy one).


Number 4: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal)

The evidence of the ill effects produced by this excitotoxin cousin of MSG continues to mount from year to year, with a University of Iowa study last year having found that women who drink just two diet sodas (which are all sweetened with aspartame) a day have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. Another 2014 study out of the University of North Dakota looked at the effects of aspartame consumption on healthy adults who consumed a high-aspartame diet for eight days followed by a low-aspartame diet for eight days, with a 2-week period in between.

When on the high-aspartame diet, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests. “Given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level of 40-50 mg/kg body weight/day,” noted an abstract on the study, “careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health.”

But then, such results hardly seem surprising, given that studies done over 40 years ago connected aspartame to the development of brain tumors in rodents and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys.

As we noted a year ago, “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.

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. That, however, hasn’t deterred the dairy industry from attempting to pass off aspartame-laced milk on school kids in a very underhanded manner.

Will aspartame in milk be the new ‘standard’?

At present, the industry’s petition that we reported on a year ago, which would allow the “standard of identity” for milk to be altered to allow for the addition of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, is still pending before the FDA. The petition filed by the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association would “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.

According to an FDA spokesperson we, the agency has received almost 45,000 comments on the petition, has now completed our review of all the comments, and is “actively working on developing a response to the petition as resources permit.”

As we noted last year, “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 over 40,000 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.”