Our deadly sweet-tooth syndrome
© Robert Anderson PhD
 Originally published in Organic NZ, July/August 2004, Vol. 63 No. 4
   Obesity, tooth decay, hyper-activity - the array of ills associated with our irresistible appetite for sugar seems endless. Yet the sweet tooth trap seems inescapable. If the sugar doesn't get us, the alternatives seem set to.
   We could be forgiven for thinking that industry is becoming more concerned with children's health when “sugar-free sweets”* are being increasingly advertised. Perhaps industry see these tackling obesity? In fact, we would generally be safer staying with sugar, hazardous though it is to health, because many sugar substitutes widely used in food and drink products are chemicals with disturbing histories.
   Saccharin was classified as a drug and banned from foods before 1938, following which it was used as a dietary supplement, PDA-monitored, until 1959.  Use increased, especially in sugar-free soft drinks and, after the 1970 ban on cyclamates, another form of artificial sweetener. In 1977, Canadian government scientists linked the ingestion of saccharin with bladder cancer and it was immediately banned as a food additive.  In the US, from 1978, foods containing saccharin required labelling. 
   Perhaps the most used sweetener today is aspartame, a neurotoxin and teratogen (triggers birth defects).  It is sold in NZ under the principal brand names of NutraSweet, Spoonful and Equal.  It is worth looking at its history.
   Aspartame was discovered by accident in a GD Searle (now Monsanto) laboratory in 1965.  But it was not approved for dry foods until 1981.  For almost 10 years, the FDA refused to approve aspartame because tests on laboratory animals showed that it produced seizures and brain tumours.  According to one attendee at a 1981 meeting, Donald Rumsfeld, then Chairman of GD Searle, said that he would “call in his chips and get aspartame approved by the end of the year”.1 On the day Ronald Reagan took office, the then FDA commissioner was sacked and the job given to Dr Arthur Hull Hayes.  A Board of Inquiry found that “aspartame should not be approved”, but Dr Hayes overruled their findings. 
   By November 1983, Hayes, criticised for accepting corporate gifts, left the FDA and went to work for Searle's public-relations' firm.  What journalists have named “the revolving door” of employees moving between regulatory authorities and industry served its purpose.  Later, Searle's lawyer, Robert Shapiro, renamed aspartame as NutraSweet and, sensing a good profit in the product, Monsanto purchased GD Searle. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld received a US$12 million bonus, and Shapiro was earmarked as Monsanto's CEO.  Probably due in part to adverse publicity, Monsanto recently sold the aspartame rights to a Japanese company.  Monsanto now markets Neotame, a more potent version of aspartame.
   By 1993, the FDA had passed an act that allowed aspartame to be used as a component in scores of food items.2  Three years later, it had removed all restrictions from aspartame, allowing it to be used in everything, including baked goods.
   So what is the problem?  Aspartame appears to cause slow, silent health damage in those unfortunate enough to miss any immediate effects, and it may take years to manifest a range of reversible and irreversible health changes.  Heating aspartame gives rise to dangerous chemical changes.
   In February 1994, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a list of adverse reactions reported to the FDA.3  In fact, it is said that over 75 percent of all adverse reactions reported to the FDA are from foods containing aspartame.  And, as the FDA admit, only one percent of those experiencing problems ever report it which effectively expands the 10,000 complaints to around a million.4  Unfortunately, the FDA, like our own Department of Health,5 have a record of discouraging or even misdirecting complaints concerning aspartame.  Health reactions are too numerous to cover, but many are serious, including seizures and death.
   Part of the aspartame manufacturing process involves genetic engineering, a fact that our Ministry of Health has refused to accept.6  An interesting scenario unfolds when considering what occurs in our bodies after ingesting aspartame.  When the methyl group of aspartame compounds encounters the enzyme chymotrypsin, methanol is released from the aspartame into the small intestine.7  (Free methanol also begins to form in liquids containing aspartame products heated to temperatures above 30°C.)  Once inside the body, methanol breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is a well-known, deadly neurotoxin and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “Both of these metabolites are toxic.”  The EPA's assessment of methanol is that “it is considered a cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed.”  The EPA recommendation is that no more than 7.8 mg/day should be ingested.  The danger of drinking a litre of aspartame-sweetened beverage is therefore obvious considering it contains around 56 mg of releasable methanol.
   The American Academy of Paediatrics recently called for sugary soft drinks to be banned from schools as a prevention against obesity.8  Consumption has quadrupled in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, this may herald the introduction of greater health problems if substitute diet beverages containing aspartame sweeteners replace them.  So, is there anything that we can do as consumers to combat this issue?
Alternatives to aspartame
   Besides writing to the appropriate MP and the Minister of Health, we can use honey or xylitol*, a safe substance briefly mentioned in our article on fluoridation (p.14, ONZ, May/June 2004).  Xylitol is a white crystalline compound having the same look and equivalent sweetening power as sugar.  It has many health-giving properties and is the ideal substitute for diabetics as it has 40 percent less calories than sugar and a glycaemic index of only seven.  Xylitol also protects against dental decay* and is beginning to make an appearance in food products.
   Aspartame is an “approved sweetener” only because greedy and dishonest people are willing to sacrifice human health on the altar of profit.  Given its record, there is little wonder that health-conscious people try to avoid aspartame.  The point is to eat safely now.  The brain you save maybe yours or your children's.  Children's vitamins and medicines may be sweetened with aspartame.  The shocking increase in cancer, diabetes, asthma rates and other diseases warrant that we must become acutely aware of what our children ingest. •
N.B.  The codes given to food additives are available on the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) site.9  Print them off for later reference.  The code for aspartame is 951 and neotame 961.
   You can find the other names under which saccharin and aspartame are marketed in “The Extra Pharmacopoeia”.  Check out “sugar-free” and “diet” labels, e.g. lollies, cookies, chewing gum, diet foods and diet soda drinks.
* Enquiries for zylitol products - (a one:one sugar replacement with glycemic index 7, for domestic and industrial applications) - should be addressed to naturesstar@xtra.co.nz.
Robert Anderson BSc (Hons), PhD (4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008)
Robert Anderson was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (formerly Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics) www.psgr.org.nz.  He authored The Final Pollution:  Genetic Apocalypse, Exploding the Myth of Genetic Engineering and several other publications on environmental, health and social justice issues. 
View his lectures on this website
Enquiries for Robert Anderson's publications should be addressed to naturesstar@xtra.co.nz.
1. See http://www.holisticmed.com/aspartame/history.faq for the history of aspartame.
2. James Turner, law firm of Swankin and Turner Washington, DC.. http://www.take-backthemedia.com/newspro/arc78.html
3. DHHS report 1994.
4. To see the FDA listings http://www.presidiotex.coni/aspartame/Facts/92_Symptoms/92_
5. Letters to Dr Gillian Durham when Head of Minister of Health.
7. Stegink, Lewis D., and L.J. Filer Jr., ed., Aspartame: Physiology and Biochemistry (New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1984), pp. 47-109;248-253.
8. New Scientist Jan 2004 No 2429 pp7.
9. http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/mediareleasespublications/publications/shoppers-guide/foodadditivesalphaupl679.cnn