FDA following prepared script in giving petition to ban aspartame the brush-off

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November 11, 2014




“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” once noted author and social activist Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle, set the stage for the law that created the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by revealing the appalling conditions and shocking practices in the meat-packing industry.

Were Sinclair alive today, however, he might well have said the same thing of the FDA itself. Especially in light of that agency’s continued failure to understand that there could be anything about the artificial sweetener aspartame that poses a significant threat to human health.

Such perpetual shirking of comprehension has now become evident once again with the FDA’s firm rejection of a citizen petition filed by New Mexico pediatrician, Dr. K. Paul Stoller, who could well be the heir of Sinclair when it comes to trying to protect the public against an industry-generated health hazard.

In requesting that the Commissioner of Food and Drugs withdraw approval for aspartame, Stoller contended that the chemical “has been shown to be, and has always been known to be, a carcinogen.” In support of that assertion, he cited scientific research that included a 2007 long-term aspartame animal feeding study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, in which “increases in total malignant tumors, lymphomas/leukemias, and mammary carcinomas were observed in male and/or female rats” – including “statistically significant” increases” in “lymphomas/leukemias in both male and female rats, mammary carcinomas in females, and tumor-bearing males.”

The baby rats used in that study, Stoller noted, were exposed to aspartame both in utero and after weaning, whereas in an earlier study, the artificial sweetener was fed to rats once they were eight weeks old. The results of that one, he pointed out, included “statistically significant increased incidences of leukemias/lymphomas in both male and female rats,” as well as “a few uncommonly occurring brain tumors” seen only in the aspartame-treated animals. The follow-up study, however, was far more robust, involving more animals and following them not only before birth, but for three years – equivalent to keeping tabs on people for 80 or 90 years.

A history of fraud and fabrication

But Stoller’s petition went well beyond such study results. It proceeded to review the whole corrupt history of the aspartame approval process, going back to the “fraudulent” research presented by G.D. Searle, which originally marketed aspartame under the name NutraSweet, in which undesired results like brain tumors and neoplasms in lab animals were reportedly covered up. Such revelations resulted in an FDA Board of Inquiry initially revoking approval for aspartame back in 1980, saying its safety had not been proved.

It also went over the politics involved in getting aspartame past those public-health hurdles, pointing out, for example, that despite three Congressional hearings from 1985 to 1987, “a senator linked with Monsanto (which bought Searle in 1985) made sure the bill to put a moratorium on aspartame and have (the National Institutes of Health) do independent studies on the problems being reported to the FDA, never got out of committee.”

Stoller also charged that the industry funded various front groups to push aspartame propaganda, even while “scientists doing studies and finding out aspartame was a poison received threats.” And he disputes claims that most research has shown aspartame to be safe, pointing out that when Dr. Ralph Walton, who appeared on a 60 Minutes segment on the sweetener, researched the subject, he found that 92 percent of independent scientific peer-reviewed studies showed that there were problems with aspartame, “while only those funded or controlled by industry ever said it was safe.”

But, predictably, none of that cut any ice with the FDA. “Despite your many assertions, you have not identified any scientific data or other information that would cause the agency to alter its conclusions about the safety of aspartame,” came the official Oct. 24 response to Stoller’s information-packed petition.

It was similar, in fact, to the agency’s response to another recent partition from Betty Martini, founder of an organization dedicated to removing aspartame and other toxic agents from the food supply, in which it claimed that “anecdotal accounts if adverse effects of aspartame are not supported by scientific evidence.” (Keep in mind that thousands of such adverse effects have been reported to the FDA following aspartame use, along with thousands more logged by the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network.)

But put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of an FDA official.

There are no doubt many fine, dedicated scientists working for the FDA, as well as other federal regulatory agencies. But if you were part of the FDA’s hierarchy, even though you might be well aware of aspartame’s hazards, to openly come out and question it or try to withdraw approval for it at this late date would probably be tantamount to signing a death sentence for your career. It would involve not just aspartame, which is well-entrenched in the food supply, but the reputation of the FDA itself, which has spent many years reassuring us that this synthetic sweetener is perfectly safe and allowing it to be used, not just in soft drinks, but all manner of products. (And remember, too, that the current FDA “food czar,” Michael Taylor, is a former lawyer and executive for Monsanto, which once held the exclusive marketing rights to aspartame.)

That’s why, realistically speaking, we need to focus our efforts on getting more and more consumers to “just say no” to this dangerous drug disguised as a sweetener – and through our purchasing choices, to get more and more companies to remove it from their low-calorie products (as some, like Yoplait, have already done).

But we can hardly expect FDA officials to “understand” the problem with aspartame when their salaries – and, indeed, the credibility of their organization – depend on their not understanding it.

Bill Bonvie is the author of Repeat Offenders, a newly released collection of previously published essays now available at Amazon.com.