Gordon: UPI: aspartame toxicity Part 1/3 Oct 1987
- Gordon: UPI: aspartame toxicity Part 1/3 Oct 1987
UPI Investigative Report 1987: Part 1
NutraSweet: Questions Swirl
(Editors note: UPI Investigative Reporter Gregory Gordon spent eight
months examining industry research into popular artificial sweetener,
NutraSweet and the Food and Drug Administrations handling of the
product permeating the diet food and drink markets. Here is the first in
his three-part report.)
DID SEARLE IGNORE EARLY WARNING SIGNS? 10.13.87
By GREGORY GORDON
WASHINGTON (UPI) A University of Illinois scientist says he warned
the G.D.Searle Co. years before NutraSweet swept the diet food and soft
drink markets that the companys new artificial sweetener could heighten
risks of brain damage in fetuses and small children.
Dr. Reuben Matalon, a pediatrician and geneticist, said that between
1976 and 1984, he prodded Searle officials several times to do more
research on the issue, but Searle never performed the studies suggested.
The Chicago-based company did, however, pursue U.S. government
approval for the low-calorie sugar substitute, and got it in a
controversial ruling in 1981.
Today, tens of millions of Americans guzzle diet soft drinks stamped
with the NutraSweet "Swirl", dump packets of the NutraSweet tabletop
sweetener, "Equal" in their coffee and consume NutraSweet-flavored
cereal, puddings, gelatins, cheesecake, chewing gum or vitamin tablets.
The Food and Drug Administration, despite receiving more than 3,600
consumer complaints, is so confident of the sweetener's safety that it
recently expanded uses to frozen and chilled fruit juices.
Matalon, however, has remained skeptical. In May, he reported that his
initial, federally funded tests on 51 adults suggests heavy NutraSweet
consumption may increase blood levels of a key amino acid enough to
affect attention span, memory and concentration in some people,
particularly small children. Pregnant women who are sensitive to the
sweeteners main component, the amino acid phenylalanine, also may face
heightened risk that their infants will have birth defects, Matalon said.
More than a dozen other scientists, some of whom are conducting clinical
studies, also say they suspect that subtle effects of the sweet powder
could pose a major health problem. They believe NutraSweet known
generically as aspartame, is linked to brain damage, epileptic seizures,
eyesight problems, allergic reactions, headaches or dizziness.
"The likelihood is very strong that aspartame does produce serious and
potentially damaging brain effects in a number of people", said Richard
Wurtman, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
who is studying scores of people who suffered seizures after using
Facing continuing controversy, The NutraSweet Co., the name adopted by
Searles NutraSweet Division following its 1985 sale to the giant
Monsanto Co., vouches for the sweetener.
The firms president, Robert Shapiro, rejects criticism voiced by
Matalon and others, saying, "The fact is that the world scientific
community has considered these very specific allegations repeatedly,
and has come to the same conclusion as the FDA."
An eight-month United Press International investigation not only turned
up scientific concerns, but also raised questions about the way the
product was approved, about the independence and depth of the
industry-funded research efforts into its safety, and about "revolving
door" relationships between FDA officials, including former FDA
Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. and the food and drink industries.
Shapiro, who obtained an advance copy of this UPI report, said, "Taken
as a whole, the effect of the article is likely to be a thoroughly
misleading impression of the state of knowledge of the subject." Company
spokesman Thym Smith said the firm is contemplating litigation.
Senator Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, a leading skeptic of the FDAs
approval who plans to hold a hearing on NutraSweet in the next few
weeks, said, "I don't have hard evidence that the product is not safe.
But, I am convinced that there is no hard evidence...that the product is
FDA officials stress they have yet to see hard data disproving the
sweetener's safety. For that reason, the agency last year rejected a
consumer groups petition to ban it on grounds that 140 users suffered
seizures and eye problems.
NutraSweet has been at the center of intense controversy almost since
July 18, 1981, the day Hayes approved its use in dry foods. Indeed, in
rendering his decision, Hayes overrode six of the nine scientists on two
agency review panels who felt studies on its possible links to brain
tumors in rats had been inadequate.
Since then, some independent scientists have become unusually
Drs. Louis Elsas of Emory University and William Pardridge of the UCLA
Medical School charged that the diet food and drink industry has engaged
in a "whitewash" by rejecting health concerns, manipulating research
studies and wining and dining scientific critics.
These and other researchers describe a world of subtle, high-stakes
strategy in which the availability of corporate funds and the design of
research protocols may have influenced the course of a
multibillion-dollar industry and potentially affected the safety of
millions of people.
The NutraSweet Co. and a non-profit industry group reject these
allegations, asserting they have commissioned scores of studies to test
the product's safety and that decisions on research funding are made
solely on merit. Company spokesman Smith said NutraSweets "phenomenal
safety record is the result of the well known nature of the product
rather than manipulations of management." Consumer complaints about
NutraSweet surged in 1983, after Hayes deputy, Mark Novitch, with the
commissioners support, approved its use in soft drinks such as "Diet
Coke" and "Crystal Light", sending consumption soaring.
UCLAs Pardridge noted in a letter to the American Medical Association
Journal last year that, with aspartame, the food industry now is adding
about five million pounds of phenylalanine "a known neurotoxin" to the
food supply every year.
Roy Burry, an analyst with Kidder-Peabody, Inc., said the exploding diet
market now accounts for 24 percent of soft drink sales, compared with 10
percent in the 1970s, and is growing at 20 to 25 percent a year.
The NutraSweet Co.s sales are no longer public, but last year revenues
were believed to have exceeded previously stated levels of $700 million.
So intense has been the NutraSweet advertising campaign that the diet
food and beverage industry created a "NutraSweet World Professional
Figure Skating Championship."
"Taking good care of oneself makes life a little better- and NutraSweet
makes it a little sweeter!" boasted one ad during a TV fitness program.
The NutraSweet Co. also has paid up to $3 million a year for a 100-
person public relations effort by the Chicago offices of Burson,
Marsteller, a former employee of the New York PR firm said. The
employee said Burson Marsteller has hired numerous scientists and
physicians, often at $1,000 a day, to defend the sweetener in media
interviews and other public forums. Burson Marsteller declines to
discuss such matters.
Dismissing safety fears, The NutraSweet Co. stresses that its product,
which in raw form, is 180 times sweeter than sugar, has been endorsed by
the AMA and other scientific bodies worldwide. Actually, the AMAs
Council of Scientific Affairs gave a qualified endorsement based on
"available evidence", including company-funded studies that were
challenged by FDA task forces during investigations of the firms
laboratory practices in the 1970s.
Of 69 scientists who responded to a recent General Accounting Office
survey, 28 said they felt more research was needed on NutraSweet and a
dozen of those questioned considered it a major health problem.
An "aspartame victims" group has formed, a consumer group has pressed
legal challenges and the company faces at least three personal injury
suits. In one suit, Jim Stoddard, 32, a diabetic in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, charged that his heavy NutraSweet consumption triggered a
dozen seizures- the last one so violent he dislocated his shoulder and
fractured his collar bone.
Stoddards lawyer, and his sister, Cynthia, alleged he suffered brain
damage and now has trouble understanding words because he consumed a
product inadequately tested by Searle. She said she withdrew the suit
recently for tactical reasons but would refile it early next year. The
company denies the allegations.
Wurtman, who quit his job as a Searle consultant and became a vocal
NutraSweet opponent, said he has been contacted by more than 200
persons who suspect they suffered seizures as a result of NutraSweet
He said Dr. Gerald Gaull, a Searle vice president, visited his
laboratory in 1985 and threatened to veto funding by ILSI
(International Life Sciences Institute), the Washington-based tax-exempt
foundation, for his planned study into whether NutraSweet changes brain
chemistry, lowering some humans seizure thresholds.
Gaull said, "theres no way" Searle, with one of 12 votes on the ILSI
panel, could veto a grant decision, but he did not deny making the
ILSI ultimately turned away Wurtman on grounds that Searle already had
arranged for seizure studies at Yale University and New Yorks Mount
Sinai Hospital studies that have drawn criticism because human
volunteers were given aspartame only once or twice.
Wurtman said he is now tapping his laboratorys budget, which is
extremely limited, slowing progress on his own studies. "Aspartame may
be a serious health hazard," he said, "Its critically important that
high quality research now be done to assess this hazard." In his letter
to the AMA Journal, Pardridge said no one has fully researched the
degree to which aspartame raises phenylalanine levels on the brain and,
if so, what the possible effects are. He said in an interview, after he
raised questions about the sweeteners effects on children, that ILSI
rejected his two grant proposals in 1985. Last year, he said, Gaull
pressed him at a conference in Colorado to prove that phenylalanine, one
of twenty-one amino acids, causes brain damage.
"It was incredible for him to ask that," Pardridge said. "That was the
basis for my ILSI grant (proposal)."
"Theres an internal conflict of interest," he said, "when a company,
which has profit at the bottom line, is charged with finding out the
true safety of its product."
Elsas, who publicly assailed NutraSweet in 1985, said he was put off for
a year before ILSI rejected his proposal without stating a reason.
ILSIs executive director, Jack Filer, asserted research proposals were
rejected because they cost too much or lacked scientific merit.
While denying funding for these aspartame skeptics, the company
(G.D.Searle/NutraSweet Co.) and ILSI have financed researchers with
whom they have long-running relationships. A number of industry-funded
scientists acknowledged that company and ILSI officials originated
ideas for their studies or participated in the research design. These
studies generally have reported the sweetener is safe.
Consumer lawyer Turner said, "The notion that an industrial company
would take large sums of money and parcel it out to scientific
consulting firms and university departments, who they consider to be
personal and commercial allies is an unconscionable way to ensure the
safety of the American food supply."
He said the NutraSweet experience shows that "the entire system of the
way scientific research is done needs to be carefully investigated,
evaluated, and revamped."
Food industry officials also said most studies financed by Searle or the
NutraSweet Co. have been arranged as contracts, rather than grants.
Smith said the company often uses contracts "to accomplish a specific
James Scala, former director of health sciences for the General Foods
Corp., a major NutraSweet user, said that a scientist working under
contract became "more of an arm of the Searle research group than a
Scala, now with the Shaklee Corp., also said that most early NutraSweet
research consisted of short-term studies that ignored possible "subtle,"
Matalon said, "Let us say cigarettes were invented today, and you give
20 people two packs a day and after six weeks, no one has cancer, would
you safe that it was safe? Thats what they did with NutraSweet."
Dr. Martha Freeman, who was a medical officer at the FDAs Bureau of
Drugs in the early 1970s, argued in 1973 that the substance (aspartame)
was "a new chemical...that doesn't occur naturally" and should only be
approved after long-term clinical studies, as if it were a new drug. Her
arguments were rejected.
Despite these complaints, the NutraSweet Co. has insisted that the
company-funded studies prove that except for people with the rare
disease, phenylketonuria, the human body processes phenylalanine in
aspartame just like any other food, Thomas Stenzel, a spokesman for the
International Food Information Council, a public relations arm for
NutraSweets manufacturers and biggest customers, contended scientific
adversaries comprise a small minority.
He said he found it "very important that the leading professional health
organizations" have found NutraSweet to be safe.
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 1985 that
studies on people given massive aspartame doses showed no dangerous
rise in blood phenylalanine levels; the Epilepsy Institute has reported
the sweetener "to be safe for people with epilepsy."
Filer, executive director of the industrys main organ, the
International Life Sciences Institute, suggested that problems blamed
on aspartame may stem from "water load" on the brain resulting from
over-consumption of liquids.
Maj. Michael Collings, who was an Air Force F-16 pilot in top physical
condition, said he often drank up to a gallon of aspartame-sweetened
products when he finished his daily, five-to-eight mile jogs in Nevadas
desert heat. After noticing slight trembling in his hands over several
weeks, he collapsed unconscious with a seizure on Oct. 4, 1985, a lawyer
for Collings said.
Because of the seizure, Collings is grounded as a pilot for life, is on
medication and was ordered transferred to Maxwell Air Force Base in
Alabama at a $400-a-month pay reduction, said attorney Bryan Gould,
who charged in a state court suit last year that NutraSweet caused the
"He tells me theres no way to describe the feeling of flight," Gould
said. "He loves to fly and now he can't." The NutraSweet Co. denies any
link between the sweetener and Collings' medical problems.
FDA officials, while publicly endorsing aspartame, are watching the
situation closely. In late 1985, the agency took the unusual step of
asking doctors nationwide to report adverse reactions to NutraSweet, and
another food additive, sulfites a move normally reserved for drugs.
Sulfites since have been banned from the market. A FDA spokesman said
about 25 doctors filed reports suggesting aspartame links to varying
The FDA approved NutraSweet products on the condition they carry a
compulsory warning to phenylketonurics, individuals sensitive to its
phenylalanine component. But Matalon, Elsas and others worry about
millions of "carriers" of the disease who are unaware of their
sensitivity. They say NutraSweet could damage fetuses of pregnant women
whose bodies have trouble processing the amino acid.
Matalon, on releasing his new study, urged that products be labeled with
the amount of NutraSweet they contain so consumers can monitor their
intake. In Canada, aspartame is the only food additive for which such
quantity food labeling is required.
With consumption soaring, Sanford Miller, chief of FDAs Bureau of
Foods, has acknowledged considering a labeling requirement in this
Dr. Gary Flamm, the FDAs top toxicologist overseeing food additives,
said that beyond labeling, once a food additive such as NutraSweet has
won approval, it is far more difficult to restrict its marketing.
"If...our approval of it was a mistake, we couldn't rectify that without
data showing that aspartame was unsafe," said Flamm, an aspartame
Even then, he said, the agency would face a new regulatory thicket
unless it could be shown NutraSweet posed "an imminent hazard." Consumer
lawyer James Turner, who has campaigned for more than a decade for a
NutraSweet ban, assailed the FDAs treatment of such safety issues.
"Once a product is on the market, whether there by nefarious or honest
means," he said, "it is impossible to get it off the market until it
has caused severe, undeniable damage that has probably lasted over many
Several independent scientists have alleged that the industry has
steered research money to allies in the scientific community, while
denying funding to those who have raised health concerns.
A number of scientists who pressed for more studies into possible brain
damage told UPI they were turned away by Searle and the International
Life Sciences Institute, a tax-exempt industry foundation supported by
the company, its Japanese aspartame-manufacturing partner and 10 sellers
of NutraSweet-flavored products.
In interviews, Drs. Matalon, Wurtman, Elsas, Pardridge, and John Olney
of Washington University in Illinois charged that the industry has paid
millions of dollars for studies that have skirted the real issues about
"There are virtually no studies," Turner said, "that have been done by
individuals using resources other than the industrys that have given a
clean bill of health to aspartame."
University of Illinois researcher Matalon recalled that he couldnt
persuade Searle to do the kind of research necessary to put to rest
lingering health concerns, neither on his first approach in 1976 nor
when he submitted specific grant proposals to more four more company
officials beginning in late 1980.
After NutraSweet won FDA approval and began changing the dietary
habits of millions of Americans, Matalon said he lost patience in 1984
with the usual encouragement from Searle officials about prospects for
future funding. "I felt they were just stringing me along," said
Matalon, who obtained a $180,000 grant from the National Institutes of
Company spokesman Smith said the NutraSweet manufacturer has "not
discouraged Dr. Matalons work, nor anyone elses." While declining to
comment on the decision not to fund Matalons study, Smith said the
company spends "between $30 million and $35 million annually on
"We do make decisions based on how we understand a study will be
conducted and, reasonable scientists may disagree on study designs," he
The company has alleged that a number of its critics are seeking to
pressure the industry to fund their laboratories.
Faced with sharply differing opinions on the sweeteners safety, the FDA
and the National Institutes of Health, the governments chief funding
mechanism for private research, have financed few studies on its
effects. One former ranking NIH official, Artemis Simopoulos, argued the
agency "should have a very extensive program on aspartame so people
would know" whether it is safe.
Yet some NIH scientists have served as consultants to the ILSI
foundation, helping decide the awards of $500,000 in annual NutraSweet
research grants in recent years. Even Simopoulos was a non-paid member
of the foundations board.
But ILSIs "aspartame technical committee," consisting of the
NutraSweet Co. and 11 other manufacturers and users of sweetener, have
been accused of discriminating against NutraSweet critics in granting
Represented on the ILSI committee are General Foods, the Coca Cola
Co., PepsiCo, Inc., the Royal Crown Cola Co. and Seven-Up, Inc.
ILSI insists that the NutraSweet Co. carries no special weight despite
its U.S. monopoly on the sweetener. "The NutraSweet Co. is one of our
members," said ILSI administrator Sharon Senzik. "Committees operate
by Roberts Rules of Order."
Filer collaborated for several years on NutraSweet research with a
colleague at the University of Iowa, Dr. Lewis Stegink. Filer pledged
that, despite his past ties to the company, as ILSIs head he would
"let the chips fall where they may" on research results. Samuel
Molinary, co-chairman of ILSIs panel, is Searle's former director of
scientific affairs and now Pepsicos research director. Molinary insists
that ILSI is not a "lackey and tool" of the NutraSweet Co.
Peter Dews, a Harvard University psychobiology professor named to
ILSIs original board of trustees in 1978, has served as an ILSI
consultant since then. Dews recently took the trouble to write and
promote an article declaring that, based on scientific presentations
at an ILSI aspartame conference in Spain last year, "there is now a
mass of evidence" that NutraSweet is safe if consumed at FDA-recommended
Dews declined to discuss his ILSI consulting fees, except to say it is
"not enough to make any difference in my life." ILSIs 1984 return filed
with the Internal Revenue Service showed payments to Dews that year of
A lawyer for the ILSI pledged to the IRS in obtaining tax-exempt status
for the foundation in 1983, that the organization "does not have any
plans to engage in commercially sponsored scientific research." Attorney
Roger Middlekauff advised the IRS that ILSI would "direct the research
toward benefiting the public" and would release all research results.
But Elsas charged that ILSI "is definitely a front organization to try
to make the public believe that there is some non-directed, non-biased
research going on," when ILSI studies actually are likely to support
The industry has invited scientific critics for paid visits to company
laboratories, sometimes offering courtesy "honorariums," an industry
The NutraSweet Co. also hosted critics at conferences in resort
settings. Matalon briefed ILSI on his research at the meeting in the
Costa del Sol region on Spains southern coast.
In the summer of 1985, the firm flew Wurtman, Elsas, Matalon,
Pardridge, several of their wives and other NutraSweet critics to a
two-day meeting at a luxurious home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. An
afternoon was spent on a yacht, participants said. "This was industry
wooing the concerned to shut up." Elsas said.
Pardridge said he was the only strong aspartame critic to accept an
invitation in June 1986 to a heavily-attended Searle sponsored
conference at a picturesque ski resort in Keystone, Colo. Pardridge
said when he tried during the conference to raise his concerns about
phenylalanine, the discussion was cut off. "It was just another typical
industry whitewash," he said.
UPI Investigative Report: 10-07-87
Seizure, Blindness victims point to NutraSweet
By GREGORY GORDON
WASHINGTON (UPI) Susan Yarmey, a free-lance writer from Quincy,
Mass., awoke on a hot July morning in 1984 with a large bump on her
head and bruises all over her body.
"I had no recollection of what happened. There were marks on the wall,
two wooden steps were broken and there was a nice gash on the wall
where my head hit," she said.
Yarmeys doctors diagnosed her injuries as resulting from a "classic"
epileptic seizure. She and Massachusetts Institute of Technology
neuroscientist Richard Wurtman believe the incident may be connected to
her consumption of the artificial sweetener, NutraSweet, known
generically as aspartame.
"A friend in New York directed me to the possible effects of NutraSweet
consumption...I was probably, at that particular time period, doing a
liter and a half to two liters (of diet soda with NutraSweet) a day,"
said Yarmey, who said when she stopped taking NutraSweet her problems
Yarmey is not alone. Many NutraSweet consumers, particularly heavy
users, who have suffered headaches, tremors, blindness, allergic
reactions and seizures, blame NutraSweet for their ailments.
Wurtman says he personally is aware of more than 200 cases in which he
suspects NutraSweet has caused health problems such as headaches,
dizziness, and seizures.
Wurtman says the problem might be solved simply by stiffening the
labeling requirements for NutraSweet products so that certain identified
groups can monitor their intake.
"The groups I would identify are pregnant ladies, small children, people
with a history of seizures and people who are taking certain drugs that
interact with phenylalanine," an amino acid in the sweetener, Wurtman
Another former NutraSweet consumer, Shannon Roth, a mother of two
who works as a goldsmith in Ocala, Florida, organized Aspartame Victims
and Their Friends, Inc. after suffering blindness in one eye. She said
the group now has about 700 members.
"I got up in the morning and had two packs (of Equal, the NutraSweet
tabletop version) in each cup of coffee...three or four cups of coffee
before noon. Then I'd switch to the iced tea with it," Roth said.
In the summer of 1984, Roth said, she began to experience headaches,
sleep and memory loss, and irritability.
After getting out of bed one morning, she discovered she couldn't see
when she closed her right eye, Roth said. "I could see like through a
black veil. It was like a centralized, almond-shaped black spot," she
Doctors laboratory tests failed to trace the cause of her partial
blindness, she said, and one doctor told her not to expect vision to
return to her eye.
Roth said she suspected NutraSweet as the cause after learning of a
similar case that was allegedly linked to the sweetener, and after about
four weeks without NutraSweet, her headaches and other problems
ceased. Her sight began to return a few weeks later, she said.
Joyce Wilson, a real estate agent in Stockbridge, Georgia, said she
began suffering from high blood pressure, dizziness and other ill
effects in 1982 after using Equal in her coffee and eating
NutraSweet-flavored puddings. She said that in 1984 and 1985, she lost
"I'm not blaming this all on NutraSweet," Wilson said. "I'm just saying
its a strange coincidence that when I started using it, I started
Dr. Morgan Raiford, an ophthalmologist at Emory University examined
both Roth and Wilson and believes their problems stem from
consumption of the methyl alcohol in NutraSweet.
Dorris Bookhart, 43, a legal secretary in Lodge, S. Carolina, started
having what were later diagnosed as temporal lobe seizures in August of
1984. At the time, she said, she was drinking four 16-ounce bottles of
Diet Coke a day, as well as diet lemonade. Both contained NutraSweet.
In January of 1985, after six months of problems, she suffered a grand
mal seizure, a convulsive episode in which the victim loses
consciousness, she said. Her doctors were mystified by the seizures,
but they ruled out epilepsy, Bookhart said.
She said she suspected NutraSweet as the culprit when, at her husbands
suggestion, she stopped drinking Diet Coke and the problems ended.
"I've cried a lot of times thinking these people have destroyed my life
and there isn't a damn thing I can do," she said.
Another heavy user of the artificial sweetener, Larry Taylor of
Arlington, Texas, said he was hospitalized for five or six days to
undergo a battery of tests after suffering a grand mal seizure in 1985.
He was also a victim of migraine headaches that became more frequent
between 1982 and 1984. After his seizures, Taylor, an anesthetist, was
not allowed to work until January of this year (1987), a disability he
said left him "financially devastated."
What critics say about NutraSweet 10.12.87
By GREGORY GORDON
WASHINGTON (UPI) Despite the NutraSweet Co.s insistence that
scores of company studies have "proved" the sweetener is harmless,
heres a sampling of concerns from a hard core of scientific critics:
What the critics say about NutraSweet
Dr. Rueben Matalon of the University of Illinois has reported that heavy
consumption of NutraSweets main component the amino acid
phenylalanine may cause neurological problems such as loss of memory
and concentration. Matalon and Dr. Louis Elsas of Emory University say
they fear aspartame consumption by some pregnant women can cause
irreversible brain damage in fetuses. They worry most about women
among an estimated 4 million to 20 million Americans who are carriers of
the genetic disease, phenylketonuria characterized by the livers
inability to process phenylalanine. While there are an estimated 20,000
to 30,000 PKU victims nationwide who are warned not to take NutraSweet,
carriers or heterozygotes, do not have the disease and generally are
unaware of their sensitivity, they said. The company has said that the
Food and Drug Administration concluded, "NutraSweet did not present any
additional health risk to pregnant women."
Dr. Paul Spiers, a clinical neuropsychologist at Bostons Beth Israel
Hospital, found in a recent pilot study that, after consuming
NutraSweet, some subjects with no previous problems failed to show the
usual improvement in performance on cognitive tests. He plans further
research. But Dr, Harris Lieberman of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, who has received industry funding for NutraSweet research
in the past, said his study of 20 adult males indicates that aspartame
"has no measurable effect on mood and performance in normal humans."
In St. Louis, Washington University allergist, Dr. Anthony Kulczycki
found that two women given NutraSweet capsules and a placebo suffered
allergic reactions to NutraSweet. The women reported hives and other
skin reactions after using the sweetener.
Dr. Donald Johns, a neurology resident at Massachusetts General
Hospital, reported last year that a "double-blind" study of a woman
suffering migraine headaches showed her problems were aggravated by
consumption of NutraSweet. NutraSweet, known generically as aspartame,
consists of phenylalanine and another amino acid, aspartic acid, linked
to a small quantity of methyl alcohol. Scientific critics seem to worry
most about phenyalanine.
Dr. Richard Wurtman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
neuroscientist, says heavy NutraSweet consumption may so flood the
bloodstream with phenyalanine that other essential amino acids are
blocked from reaching the brain, causing chemical changes that can
affect behavior and lower the threshold at which many suffer epileptic
seizures. Wurtman and Dr. Donald Schomer of Harvard University are
testing seizure victims who used NutraSweet, particularly some whose
bodies may have trouble processing phenylalanine. The NutraSweet Co.
concedes aspartame raises phenylalanine levels, but says no harm
results, and that consuming the amino acids in NutraSweet "is just like
eating other foods containing the same protein components."
Another Wurtmen protege, Dr. Timothy Maher of Massachusetts General
Hospital, supported his mentor by reporting that mice, given a seizure
inducing drug and NutraSweet, suffered more seizures than those
receiving the drug alone. Dr. Henry Haigler, a scientist in a NutraSweet
Co. sister firm, said his similar study showed "no effect on seizure
Dr. William Pardridge of the UCLA Medical School, who also has done
phenylalanine research, said he most fears the sweeteners effect on
children, who, he says, "are more likely to approach the FDAs
acceptable daily intake level of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body
weight. If youre a child, seven to twelve years of age, the chances
are good you'll have five servings a day" close to the acceptable
level, he said. But Dr. Harvey Levy, head of the PKU clinic at Bostons
Childrens Hospital, wrote the Journal of the American Medical
Association that Pardridge made an "inaccurate interpretation" of their
data in predicting brain damage effects on fetuses from aspartame. Any
danger level, they said, "would seem to be considerably higher" than
levels from NutraSweet consumption.
Dr. Woodrow Monte, an Arizona State University food scientist, and Dr.
Morgan Raiford, an ophthalmology professor at Emory, worry that a
NutraSweet breakdown product, methyl alcohol, could produce severe eye
damage. Last year, Raiford examined more than a half dozen persons
who said they suffered eye problems after consuming NutraSweet heavily.
He said he diagnosed some cases of optic nerve damage and suspects
NutraSweets methyl alcohol is the culprit. The company denies any
connection between NutraSweet and eye problems and has offered exams
to consumers who complain of such problems.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, executive director of the Washington-based Health
Research Group, said, "The thing thats really worrisome is that it
clearly affects brain metabolism in animals, and anyone who disputes
that is irresponsible."
Dr. John Olney of Washington University expresses fears about brain
tumors a problem he and other scientists say would not show up in
humans for 20 years and would be difficult to trace to NutraSweet. Olney
said Searle rat studies have shown conflicting brain tumor data. As
early as 1971, Olney reported that aspartic acid in aspartame killed
cells in the brains hypothalamus region, which regulates glandular and
The NutraSweet Company responds to UPI series 10.13.87
WASHINGTON (UPI) In response to the United Press International
series of articles on NutraSweet, The NutraSweet Co. issued the
A series of articles to be released this week by UPI seriously
misrepresents the vast body of scientific evidence, which establishes
the safety of aspartame.
Contrary to the impression created by these articles, the scientific
record has been carefully reviewed by independent and official
scientific and regulatory agencies around the world. Without exception,
each of these agencies has concluded that aspartame is a safe sweetener
which can be used as a normal part of the daily diet. The following
quotations are representative of expert scientific and medical opinion
around the world.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "The data and information
supporting the safety of aspartame are extensive. It is likely that no
food product has ever been so closely examined for safety...Few
compounds have withstood such detailed testing and repeated close
scrutiny, and the process through which aspartame has gone should
provide the public with additional confidence of its safety."
American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs:
"Consumption of aspartame of normal humans is safe..."
American Diabetes Association: "Aspartame has been determined to be
safe for the general population as well as for people with diabetes."
Government of Canada (Health Protection Branch): "Aspartame is one of
the most extensively studied chemicals permitted for use in food...Based
on the available data it has been concluded that aspartame would not
pose a hazard to health when used in accordance with the current
provisions of the Canadian food and drug regulations."
Government of Denmark (Danish Food Institute): "Research published in
the scientific literature and/or studied in detail by governments and
independent scientific committees maintains that the use of aspartame as
an additive does not bear any health risk at all...There is, therefore,
no toxicological basis for believing the intake of aspartame is soft
drinks and food products should give rise to harmful effects in children
or adults, even people with high level usage."
Government of Great Britain (UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals
and Food): "Following detailed consideration of all toxicological data,
we see no objection to the use of aspartame in food."
Other scientific agencies that have reviewed the evidence and confirmed
the safety of aspartame include the World health Organization of the
United Nations; the Scientific Committee on Foods of the European
Common Market; the Epilepsy Institute; and the American Academy of
Aspartame has been reviewed and approved as a safe sweetener by the
official food regulatory authorities in all the leading nations of the
world, including many which forbid or restrict the usage of other
A recent article by Harvard Medical School Prof. Peter Dews reviewed the
"massive evidence" that establishes the safety of aspartame. Dr. Dews
concluded: "Many articles of everyday consumption that are known to be
safe might not survive the scrutiny of such intensive and continued
The respected consumer publication Consumer Reports summarized its
conclusions this way: "An objective weighing of the evidence suggests
that aspartame is the artificial sweetener to be preferred on safety
The UPI articles also seek to discredit the process by which aspartame
was reviewed and approved by the FDA.
These charges have been conclusively rebutted by both the FDA, itself,
and by the General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of the
Congress. A full GAO report on the approval process concluded that the
FDA had properly followed the appropriate procedures and had
adequately addressed the scientific issues.
The UPI series is replete with misstatements and distortions, which
convey a totally misleading impression of the scientific facts. Any
concern or anxiety by consumers who read these articles is absolutely
unwarranted. Aspartame is safe as approved by FDA and regulatory
authorities around the world. Any contrary impression created by UPI
articles is a serious disservice to the public.