Artificial Sweeteners Gone Sour?
By Lorrie Klosterman
You’ve had a great workout, pushing yourself to generate an impressive sweat and a formidable thirst. You fancy a carbonated beverage, and after all that work to keep the pounds off, you choose sugar-free. And surely you could splurge on just a little ice cream – better yet, some of that calorie-reduced brand so you could have just a little more?
You might not choose foods or beverages with artificial sweeteners, but a whopping 84 percent of Americans do, and they say they want more, according to a national survey released this year by the Calorie Control Council, a nonprofit association that has tracked weight and dieting levels for the past 20 years. In addition, the estimated 70 million dieters in the country – about a third of the adult population – are on the low-carb craze. Over 800 products on US supermarket shelves (83 in Canada and 14 in the UK, for comparison) contain artificial, sweet-tasting chemicals that are either so sweet that only a tiny amount is needed, or are alien to our digestive tracts and pass through without being absorbed, generating no caloric intake. Variously called low-calorie, reduced-sugar, or sugar-free, they are recommended without hesitation by virtually every mainstream health advisory body, not just to dieters, but also to diabetics, because they don’t cause the blood sugar spike that nature’s sugars (and other foods, incidentally) do.
These chemical characters are the brainchildren of pharmaceutical and chemical companies, though a few have been discovered by accident. The firstborn, saccharin, was discovered at Johns Hopkins University in 1879, when a lab assistant noticed a tantalizing sweetness on his hand during dinner and traced it back to mucking around in the chem lab with a derivative of toluene (itself distilled from coal tar) earlier that day. Saccharin is alive and well today in over 100 countries as Sweet ‘N Low and Sugar Twin. It recently was liberated from the decades-long requirement that it carry a warning as a potential carcinogen because it causes bladder cancer in rats. Evidence that the cancers develop by a mechanism that doesn’t apply to humans was convincing enough to the Department of Health and Human Services that it dropped saccharin from its list of suspected human carcinogens in May of 2000; that cleared the way for eliminating the warning.
Sugar substitutes are a diverse lot of cleverly designed molecules that trick the tongue into thinking “sweet” while adding few or no calories, and without nurturing one’s cavity-producing oral bacteria, which can’t wrap their little enzymes around them either. The bulk of safety studies on them are done by the companies that make them, and FDA reviews their findings – that’s standard practice. All lack long-term studies in humans, however.
Many artificial sweeteners are polyols (“sugar alcohols,” though they contain no alcohol in the layperson’s sense of the word), like sorbitol, maltitol, isomalt, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, and others. They are slight modifications of naturally occurring sugars or lipids and are used cup for cup in place of white sugar (sucrose), though they can cause digestive turmoil. Sucralose (Splenda), is a tri-chlorinated sucrose molecule that scares the heck out of some people who know that other human-designed chlorinated compounds like DDT and PCBs have a very nasty track record. It’s caused significant thyroid reduction in rats and independent reviewers say the data establishing its safety are inadequate and flawed. Acesulfame-K (Sunett), used in over 100 countries, is made by the pharmaceutical and agribusiness company Hoechst (now part of Aventis). It has relatively little research to prove its safety; most is from animal studies whose protocols have been called inadequate. (For an extensive review of these and other sweeteners, see “Sugar Blues” by Jim Earles at www.westonaprice.org.)
But the favorite these days is aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), touted as the most-tested additive ever. Introduced to consumers over two decades ago by Monsanto (known as G. D. Searle Co. at the time), aspartame is now present in more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals (check your toothpaste, mouthwash, throat lozenges, cold and cough syrups, kids’ vitamins…). It’s a pair of naturally occurring amino acids linked together by a methyl group into a super-sweet molecule. It must be avoided by people with PKU, a genetic inability to metabolize one of those amino acids, which is toxic in excess.
A fact sheet by the American Dietetic Association, self-described as “the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals,” www.eatright.org assures consumers that “aspartame’s safety has been documented in more than 200 objective scientific studies [and] has been confirmed by the regulatory authorities in more than 100 countries, including the US Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, as well as by experts with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization.” Also attesting to its safety are the American Medical Association and the American Diabetes Association.
SKELETONS IN ASPARTAME’S CLOSET
As unflinchingly as proponents of aspartame say it’s safe, thousands of consumers and a subset of nutritionists and doctors call it a toxin. By 1988, five years after its entry into the food stream, aspartame had claimed an 80 percent share of all consumer complaints made to the FDA, and by 1996 complaints of adverse health reactions had totaled 10,000. Consumers are still complaining. Agencies like the American Dietetic Association and the FDA tell us (on their Web sites) to ignore these people, saying they are using scare tactics and creating a hoax.
But their stories give a whole other take on aspartame that’s hard to shrug off, and Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World (Sound and Fury Productions, 2004, www.soundandfury.tv) is a startling compilation of interviews with consumers and physicians who build the case that aspartame is poisoning people, causing dizziness, seizures, migraines, severe vision problems, brain tumors, and many other symptoms, some of which mimic systemic lupus erythematosis, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s, other serious diseases.
In Sweet Misery H. J. Roberts, MD, describes some of the information he’s also gathered into Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic (Sunshine Sentinel Press, 2001), packed with scientific evidence, biochemical explanations, and cases of 1,200 patients whose symptoms were relieved when they stopped consuming aspartame and returned within hours or days of using it again. Nutrition editor and author Beatrice Trum Hunter calls Roberts’ book a monumental work of pioneering importance comparable to Rachel Carson’s revelations about the environment; aspartame’s safety advocates discount Roberts’ case studies as unscientific because many of the patients deduced for themselves what was causing their symptoms.
Holly Anne Shelowitz is a board-certified nutrition counselor and whole food chef with a private practice in Rosendale. She has no doubt that aspartame is toxic. “In my practice, the people who are having reactions are using three or more packets or diet sodas a day. One client was not sleeping well and had muscle and bone aches, was feeling depressed, and constantly craved sweets. Within about two weeks of giving up the soda, his aches disappeared, he was able to sleep through the night, and the sweet cravings went away” (she also had him eating more protein). The cravings for more, which Shelowitz and her colleagues have seen among several clients, hint at addiction. One man had trouble coming off it. “He had severe, incapacitating migraines for about two weeks after quitting his usual eight packets of NutraSweet and four caffeine-free diet sodas each day.”
Another skeleton in aspartame’s closet is the allegation that its FDA approval was politically maneuvered by Donald Rumsfeld after he became CEO of Searle in 1981. A 1980 Public Board of Inquiry by the Department of Health and Humans Services made aspartame illegal until additional studies could be done on its potential to cause brain tumors and injury – a concern based on evidence from laboratory animals. Nevertheless, soon after Rumsfeld became CEO, and a day after President Reagan took office, aspartame was approved by newly appointed FDA Commissioner Arthur Hayes. According to a press release by the National Justice League, an anti-aspartame group, Hayes then joined NutraSweet’s public relations firm under a 10-year contract at $1,000 a day. The plot gets thicker, with personnel hopping between the FDA and aspartame-supportive businesses.
Now, a racketeering complaint asking $350 million in damages has been filed with a US District Court in California, citing Monsanto, the American Diabetes Association (for spreading “misinformation”), and others for “manufacturing and marketing a deadly neurotoxin unfit for human consumption,” and Rumsfeld is mentioned often in the lawsuit. Three other lawsuits were filed in April by the National Justice League against 12 companies that either produce or use aspartame, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Bayer Corp., the Dannon Company, William Wrigley, Jr. Company, Walmart, ConAgra Foods, Wyeth, Inc., and Altria Corp. (parent company of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris). Makers of Diet Pepsi and Diet 7UP announced in September that they will be replacing aspartame with sucralose.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
But how could aspartame, made of two naturally occurring amino acids – phenylalanine and aspartic acid – be harmful? Neurosurgeon Russell L. Blaylock of the National Cancer Institute and author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (Health Press, 1996) and Health and Nutrition Secrets That Can Save Your Life (Health Press, 2002) noticed an unexplained rise in brain cancers beginning in 1985 and knows too much about the chemistry of aspartame and physiology of the body to ignore the link. He explains in his books, interviews, lectures, and in Sweet Misery why aspartame is dangerous in the short term for some people, and possibly dangerous in the long run for everyone.
For example, phenylalanine is a building block for epinephrine – one of the most important brain chemicals, and could be responsible for symptoms like seizures. J. W. Olney, the doctor who identified MSG as a neurotoxin because it caused brain cell death in mice – which got it banned from baby food – found that aspartic acid does the same. Blaylock warns these and other toxic breakdown products like formaldehyde can make their way into the brain when the blood-brain barrier, which normally would keep them out, is damaged by drugs, hypoglycemia, free radicals, age, extreme exercise, or autoimmune diseases.
What’s more, a methyl group that links the amino acids together becomes methyl alcohol in the body. Jim Bowen is a physician specializing in biochemistry who had a severe reaction himself. In Sweet Misery he says, “Had I seen the chemical formula on this product, I would never have touched it. The poisonous effect of methyl alcohol and methyl esters are well known.”
And about those safety studies: Ralph G. Walton, MD, analyzed all of them, comparing what they concluded with who had funded them. He discovered that virtually all studies that attested to aspartame’s safety were funded by Searle/Monsanto or the soft drink industry – studies Blaylock describes as unacceptably shoddy science with attempts to alter or hide tumor data. By contrast, almost every independent study identified at least one health problem.
The FDA acknowledged in its Consumer Magazine (November-December, 1999) that aspartame ingestion produces methanol, formaldehyde, and formate, but in “modest” levels, and that methanol content of citrus juices and tomatoes is higher. It mentions, however, that people with advanced liver disease and pregnant women “with high levels of phenylalanine in the blood might have trouble metabolizing it.” The agency acknowledges that the sweetener causes brain damage in rats in high doses, but asserts that people consume far less than the acceptable daily dose.
THE GUMBALL IS IN YOUR COURT
People used to get along without artificial sweeteners, back when obesity and diabetes (type II), caused by high caloric intake, were uncommon. Now they both have reached epidemic proportions in the US. But the reality is that life-threatening risks of obesity may overshadow worries about aspartame for these people. So they are encouraged to use it and other artificial sweeteners. In fact, the FDA has just agreed to allow low- or reduced-calorie foods and beverages to be labeled with language like “Low calorie [name of food] may be useful in weight control” followed by “Obesity increases the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.” The obese population will be testing what happens when the health issues of their overweight meet the side effects of artificial sweeteners.
Obviously, you can choose to avoid artificial sweeteners by learning their several names and avoiding products that list them as ingredients. Shopping for organic or trusted natural food brands makes it easier, since they typically contain no artificial ingredients, but other brands of “natural” or “nutritious” foods (e.g., granola, yogurt, energy bars, low-fat, or fat-free products) typically have artificial sweeteners. Avoid low-carb and low-calorie products off the shelf, but also at restaurants unless you inquire about ingredients. You may also want to try the lesser-known natural plant sweeteners gaining recognition as more healthful than anything out there.
Steve Treccase of Saugerties, a nutrition advisor who has been researching and advocating for raw and living foods for over a decade, loves raw agave nectar. “It’s velvety, succulent stuff with a neutral flavor, slightly sweeter than sugar. It stands head and shoulders above other sweeteners.” And it’s vegan, organic, and consists mostly of fructose, but in a form that doesn’t trigger the glycemic spike that fructose from other sources typically does. You can get it at health food stores or from Treccase (www.organicnectars.com, (845) 246-0506).
Another natural sweetener is stevia, available as a white powder derived from a leafy green plant. It’s Holly Anne Shelowitz’s favorite. “It’s so incredibly sweet naturally, you use the tiniest amount. For people who are really trying to be weight conscious, they should be using something natural like stevia or agave nectar instead of something totally processed.” Given the controversy that is souring artificial sweeteners, everyone, not just the weight-conscious, could benefit from sampling nature’s other sweet treats.