Fake ‘sweetener’ with fake ‘safety’ claim could spell another real disaster

Posted by
March 18, 2014

scientist

By BILL BONVIE

The phantom flavoring agent we’ve told you about in past blogs is now reportedly available as a food and beverage additive, and should be coming soon to a supermarket near you.

It’s even been given a name – Sweetmyx.

Only don’t expect to see that name listed among the ingredients of products that contain it. More than likely, it will simply be another “artificial flavor” or perhaps an “artificial sweetener,” with the only other clue to its presence being a magical reduction in calories. And while it will be making its debut in beverages manufactured by Pepsi, a Swiss company is reported to be finding ways to use it in all kinds of other processed foods.

But you might be relieved to hear it was declared safe – or at least “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. And that, of course, means the Food and Drug Administration has conferred an official stamp of safety on it, right?

Well, not exactly.

In fact, the FDA, in a rather unusual declaration, has let it be known that it’s done no such thing, despite an announcement sent out to and parroted in the media that sure sounded like it had.

In fact, here’s how the press release containing that announcement was worded:

“Senomyx, Inc. (SNMX), a leading company using proprietary taste science technologies to discover, develop and commercialize novel flavor ingredients for the food, beverage and flavor industries, announced today that its new Sweetmyx flavor ingredient, previously referred to as S617, has been determined to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, administered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “

And here was the FDA’s response:

“On March 11, 2014, Senomyx, Inc. issued a public statement suggesting that its food ingredient Sweetmyx (also known as S617) was generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The statement appeared to suggest that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had made the GRAS determination. In fact, the agency had not made this determination nor had it been notified by Senomyx regarding a GRAS determination for this food ingredient. The company’s statement has been corrected and now notes that a third party organization made the determination.”

Ah, yes, it was actually a “third party organization” that made the determination of safety – to be specific, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, which also uses the acronym FEMA (not to be confused with the better known federal agency).  And that group seems to have made its determination in keeping with a 1997 proposed rule that would have allowed GRAS declarations to be made on a voluntary basis, but was never finalized.

But, like one of those courtroom statements that the jury is instructed to disregard, the original announcement had its desired effect, which was to jack up the company’s stock price 26 percent (and possibly to give the impression of an official safety confirmation to anyone who wasn’t privy to the follow-up).

So is the FDA now planning on doing its own assessment of the safety of Sweetmyx? Not that we’re aware of.

In fact, if the FDA knows what this stuff is or how it’s made, they’re not passing that information on to the public.  All we do know is that it’s not really a “sweetener,” but rather a “sweetener enhancer” that tricks your taste buds – and your brain – into perceiving an amplified level of sweetness that’s not really there.

A road we’ve been down before?

Might Sweetmyx, then, turn out to be another “excitoxin” that can cause neurons in your brain to fire until they self-destruct, like MSG (another “flavor enhancer”) or aspartame? Again, we don’t know.

And aspartame should, perhaps, be an object lesson in the dangers of allowing a chemical concoction to enter the market as a sweetening agent without our having a complete understanding of its effects and potential hazards.  In fact, aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet) actually received GRAS status — although that approval by a political appointee, FDA commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes, in the early 1980s came despite some rather ominous results of testing done by the original manufacturer, G.D. Searle, which caused an earlier FDA approval to be rescinded, and ran counter to the advice of the FDA’s own Public Board of Inquiry.

Many thousands of adverse reaction reports have since resulted from aspartame’s widespread assimilation into any number of products as a noncaloric synthetic sweetener, ranging from migraines to vision problems to blackouts. But once having become firmly entrenched  (even though it is now being shown to actually promote weight gain), it has become an accepted additive to processed foods that consumers often don’t even realize is there, and that no amount of health complaints seem able to dislodge.

Now once again, we see a mysterious new ingredient about to be added to an unspecified number of products, but which this time isn’t even likely to be identified by name. In fact, food industry marketer-turned-critic Bruce Bradley cites it as an example of how companies encourage “excessive consumption” by introducing “more and more minimally tested additives” into the food supply “with questionable concern for the long-term health consequences for consumers.”

But is it mere coincidence that Sweetmyx is making its appearance at a time when so-called “sugary drinks” — which actually contain high fructose corn syrup – are being targeted by reformers as a major cause of the current obesity epidemic? After all, what could be wrong with finding a way to reduce the “added sugars” (again, really HFCS) they contain without making them seem any less sweet?

As it turns out, quite a lot — which we know only too well from having already had the disastrous experience of allowing industry to use our food as a testing ground for experimental substances to enhance its profits.