Internet rumors that aspartame is deadly

Many internet sources claim aspartame is dangerous to human health. This is an example:

Aspartame has been renamed and is now being marketed as a natural sweetener

Friday, February 12, 2010 by: Ethan Huff, citizen journalist

(NaturalNews) In response to growing awareness about the dangers of artificial sweeteners, what does the manufacturer of one of the world’s most notable artificial sweeteners do? Why, rename it and begin marketing it as natural, of course. This is precisely the strategy of Ajinomoto, maker of aspartame, which hopes to pull the wool over the eyes of the public with its rebranded version of aspartame, called “AminoSweet”.

Yeah, tell it to the slimehead (aka, orange roughy) or to rapeseed (aka, canola).

Over 25 years ago, aspartame was first introduced into the European food supply. Today, it is an everyday component of most diet beverages, sugar-free desserts, and chewing gums in countries worldwide. But the tides have been turning as the general public is waking up to the truth about artificial sweeteners like aspartame and the harm they cause to health. The latest aspartame marketing scheme is a desperate effort to indoctrinate the public into accepting the chemical sweetener as natural and safe, despite evidence to the contrary.

Aspartame was an accidental discovery by James Schlatter, a chemist who had been trying to produce an anti-ulcer pharmaceutical drug for G.D. Searle & Company back in 1965. Upon mixing aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two naturally-occurring amino acids, he discovered that the new compound had a sweet taste. The company merely changed its FDA approval application from drug to food additive and, voila, aspartame was born.

G.D. Searle & Company first patented aspartame in 1970. An internal memo released in the same year urged company executives to work on getting the FDA into the “habit of saying yes” and of encouraging a “subconscious spirit of participation” in getting the chemical approved.

Of course they wanted their new product approved. Pet peeve of mine: Unsourced quotes of a fraction of a sentence. Often misleading, or copied from somewhere else, and so on leading back to who knows where.

In 1976, then FDA Commissioner Alexander Schmidt wrote a letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy expressing concern over the “questionable integrity of the basic safety data submitted for aspartame safety”. FDA Chief Counsel Richard Merrill believed that a grand jury should investigate G.D. Searle & Company for lying about the safety of aspartame in its reports and for concealing evidence proving the chemical is unsafe for consumption.

A claim! Let’s google around. Here’s some info:

The History of Aspartame by Ashley Nill

This law article has more details of the aspartame approval process. This section is relevant:

The first obstacle that Searle met came from Dr. John W. Olney, M.D., psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University of St. Louis, and James S. Turner, author of The Chemical Feast, and co-founder of the Center for Study of Responsive Law.[30] Olney and Turner formally objected to the regulation that authorized the marketing of aspartame as a sweetener in foods.[31] Dr. Olney had performed research in animals regarding the toxic effects on the brain of certain Amino acids, including asparatic acid. Both parties objected to the use of aspartame in foods, especially those consumed by children. They asserted that aspartame might cause brain damage resulting in mental retardation, endocrine dysfunction, or both. Turner and Olney also argued that aspartame could be dangerous to persons with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), a disorder that prevents the metabolism of phenylalanine, one of the amino acids in aspartame.[32]

These along with other concerns and allegations necessitated a FDA hearing provided for by 21 U. S. C. 348.[33] Instead of having a full evidentiary hearing, which was customary at the time, the parties waived their right and accepted a hearing before a public board of inquiry instead.[34] This was the first time that the FDA had ever used this type of hearing in place of a full evidentiary hearing. Searle agreed to delay marketing of aspartame temporarily, pending resolution of the safety questions.[35]

Before the board could hold a hearing regarding the safety of aspartame as a food additive in response to Olney and Turner’s allegations, however, Searle’s quest for aspartame approval hit another snag. Preliminary results from an audit of the records of certain animal studies conducted by or for Searle, including studies on aspartame, indicated a need for a comprehensive review of the authenticity of the aspartame research data. Apparently, the audit of Searle’s clinical methods revealed “sloppy” research, including some research that was being done on aspartame.[38] The negative publicity that surrounded Searle’s clinical methods bolstered consumer criticism of aspartame, and further clouded the safety issues that had not yet been addressed. Alexander Schmidt, then FDA commissioner, noted that the FDA audit revealed “different discrepancies of different kinds.”[39] Pursuant to 21 U. S. C. 348(e), FDA formally stayed the regulation authorizing the marketing of aspartame.[40]

G.D. Searle & Company submitted its first petition to the FDA in 1973 and fought for years to gain FDA approval, submitting its own safety studies that many believed were inadequate and deceptive. Despite numerous objections, including one from its own scientists, the company was able to convince the FDA to approve aspartame for commercial use in a few products in 1974, igniting a blaze of controversy.

So, the FDA was cautious. Good to hear they don’t let companies put untested new chemicals in the human food supply. G.D. Searle & Company’s safety studies were sloppy, and this delayed the approval of aspartame until 1981, a delay probably costing the company at least tens of millions in lost profits.

It looks like G.D. Searle & Company did what it could to push and influence the approval process through means fair and foul. The worst case interpretation of the company’s actions is put forward here. It’s initial approval application in 1973 was crap but by the time 1981 rolled around enough other studies had been done for aspartame to squeak by to approval.

Wikipedia usually is a poor source for controversies and alt-med claims but its aspartame controversy article at least shows the shape of the debate.

Despite the myriad of evidence gained over the years showing that aspartame is a dangerous toxin, it has remained on the global market with the exception of a few countries that have banned it. In fact, it continued to gain approval for use in new types of food despite evidence showing that it causes neurological brain damage, cancerous tumors, and endocrine disruption, among other things.

OK, let’s look at evidence of:
“cancerous tumors”: As I wrote before 10:1 no cancer:cancer so far. Either not a carcinogen or a very weak one.

“endocrine disruption”: No evidence. The claim traces back to a hypothesis made by Olney in 1975. Basically large doses of MSG can cause stunting and he suggested the aspartic acid in aspartame would have the same effect. There was never much evidence for this idea, and by the time of this 1988 review article it was known to be false. While MSG can make a person head buzz a bit (it has this effect on me), aspartame doesn’t–so it must have a much weaker effect than MSG.

“neurological brain damage”: No evidence I can find.

This claim was rejected during the FDA approval process. Again from the History of Aspartame article:

The board had its first meetings on January 30, 31 and February 1, 1980.[65] On the first question, whether the ingestion of aspartame poses a risk of contributing to mental retardation, brain damage, or undesirable effects on the neuroendocrine regulatory system, the board found that aspartame did not pose an increased risk of brain or endocrine dysfunction.[66]

The Humphries et al., 2008 article I mentioned in the previous post is the recent source for most of these claims on the internet. But the claims in the review article are all hypotheses and maybes and don’t have any evidence behind them. In fact, aspartame’s neurological effects have been studied extensively since the controversy over its approval thirty years ago and there’s still no evidence it causes any damage to the brain.

What countries have banned aspartame? As far as Wikipedia knows, no countries have banned aspartame, certainly not US/Canada/Europe.

The details of aspartame’s history are lengthy, but the point remains that the carcinogen was illegitimately approved as a food additive through heavy-handed prodding by a powerful corporation with its own interests in mind. Practically all drugs and food additives are approved by the FDA not because science shows they are safe but because companies essentially lobby the FDA with monetary payoffs and complete the agency’s multi-million dollar approval process.

From the Wikipedia article: “In 1987, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the food additive approval process had been followed properly for aspartame.” As the discussion above notes, it was a bumpy approval, but the FDA did scrutinize it.

FDA review and approval is a barrier, the main barrier, to companies selling dangerous or ineffective products. It was designed to work in the face of corporate opposition and evasion. And it works OK–there are only a few cases where the FDA has approved something later shown to be dangerous, and while it is expensive to do the studies to prove a product safe, the FDA makes approval decisions pretty quickly.

That the FDA is a barrier to selling crap is apparent in how happy the alt-med product companies were to get Congress to exclude them from FDA oversight and how hard they lobby to keep their special status (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994).

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