How a bold new disguise could sneak a toxic additive into your family’s diet

Posted by
May 27, 2014

Aspartame chemical formula on school chalkboard


It’s something that seems to be happening more and more these days: a deliberate effort to make us less and less aware of harmful substances that are being slipped into our food.

A good example is what’s been happening with the artificial sweetener aspartame – and what’s poised to happen next.

But first a little background:

When aspartame was originally introduced as a non-caloric sugar substitute under the trade name “NutraSweet,’ the company’s “swirl” logo usually served as an instant indicator that a product contained it. So even though it was being misrepresented as “safe” for most people – except those with the genetic condition phenylketonuria, or PKU – consumers who knew better could  easily steer clear of this neurotoxic additive, which was originally approved by a political appointee for the Food and Drug Administration despite being an apparent cause of brain tumors in lab rats.

Since aspartame (which was accidentally discovered by a scientist for the drug maker Searle) became a generic ingredient, however, its presence in various foods and beverages — and even in some children’s vitamins — has become a lot less apparent.  A typical example is Yoplait “Light” Yogurt, a heavily advertised item that you might never suspect contained it – that is, unless you made a point of examining the actual ingredients listed on the back panel.

But then, unless you’re a PKU sufferer, such reduced visibility really shouldn’t matter, according to a barrage of industry propaganda purporting to be scientific “fact.”  Typical of such assurances is what you’ll find about aspartame in Wikipedia (and this should be a cautionary tale for those who rely on this so-called “free encyclopedia” whose information is contributed “collaboratively” by “Internet volunteers”). “Since December 1998, a widely circulated email hoax cited aspartame as the cause of numerous diseases,” the entry claims, adding, “(t)he weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener.”

Of course, there are many thousands of consumers who would disagree with that assessment, having discovered from personal experience just how misleading – and downright dangerous — such affirmations can be. They’re the ones who have suffered everything from migraines and seizures to temporary blindness – and in numerous cases, reported these “adverse reactions” to the Food and Drug administration, as well as to groups like the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, for decades. Among them are airline pilots who found their ability to fly safely after ingesting aspartame-laced soft drinks was significantly impaired. (But then, what would you expect of a product that, according to patent information revealed  last year, is actually a waste product of E coli bacteria?)

To suggest that so many people from all walks of life are merely the victims of – if not parties to – an “email hoax” is a classic case of adding insult to injury.  (And shame on you, Wikipedia, for allowing thjs sort of industry-propagated propaganda to permeate your site when so many consumers know otherwise — not to mention doctors and scientists who believe aspartame may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s and cause brain damage and aggression in children.)

Enter ‘advantame’ – literally without any warning

Now, however, the FDA has opened up a whole new dimension in the downplaying of aspartame’s dangers – by approving “advantame,” an “exciting new ultrahigh potency sweetener derived from aspartame and vanillin.” Or at least, that’s how it’s described on the website maintained by Ajinomoto, the same company that also brought us the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (which, like aspartame, is an “excitotoxin” that can literally excite certain brain cells to death).

But here’s the really scary part: because it’s” about 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and 100 times sweeter than aspartame,” and therefor apt to be used in lower quantities, advantame has been officially declared “safe” for people with PKU — meaning it can be sold without any warning to them on the label.  But perhaps even worse, it turns out that  advantame (which has not yet been given an official trade name) was granted “generally regarded as safe” or GRAS status back in 2011, not by the FDA, but by an industry group, the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association as a flavoring substance in nonalcoholic beverages, chewing gum, frozen dairy and milk products. And apparently, no one was any the wiser – except for one organization, which noted in a letter to the FDA that “(o)ur concern is that …advantame will be used to provide a portion of sweetness in products without labeling,” which it claimed “would be very deceptive to consumers.”

And what, you might ask, was the organization that was so concerned that consumers not be deceived by the absence of labeling for this new aspartame-based hybrid sweetener? Why, none other than the NutraSweet Company, the one-timer owner of the patent on aspartame, which now counts Ajinomoto among its competitors for a share of the market.

Perhaps it’s only fitting to close this blog by noting that Ajinomoto is also the company that once took Asda, a British food retailer, to court for listing aspartame among several “hidden nasties” not found in its products.  After a long-running (and no doubt costly) legal battle, the case was finally settled three years ago, with Asda agreeing to drop any reference to aspartame on its product labels.

Here at Food Identity Theft, however, we can still tell you that Asda’s original characterization was correct – aspartame is very nasty stuff indeed, and nothing you should want to ingest in any form.  That’s why it’s important that you let the FDA, even at this late date, know that, no matter what it’s called or how much of it a product contains, you don’t want this pernicious ingredient slipped into your food by any other name – or concealed as a flavoring agent with no name at all.

You can add your comments about the FDA’s approval of advantame at the agency docket here until June 20th.