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Aspartame Warning

Part 3: MS Foundation: Markle Letter is 'Scandalously Misinformative...'

More of this Feature
Part 1: The "Nancy Markle" Email
Part 2: A Laundry List of Maladies

Of course, the NutraSweet Company insists — as it has ever since it began manufacturing the product — that aspartame is safe for nearly everyone to use. In answer to the Internet rumors charging that aspartame is deadly, NutraSweet posted rebuttals on its promotional Website. Labeling Martini's allegations "egregious," the document states: "None of the symptoms she and her 'sources' have attributed to aspartame have been substantiated in any clinical scientific study."

Those inclined to dismiss NutraSweet's statements as a corporate whitewash will probably also reject the FDA's Statement on Aspartame published in 1996. The paper disputes charges that aspartame is associated with brain tumors. The FDA has also released its own rebuttal of the "Nancy Markle" email dated January 27, 1999. Critics will note that it agrees on most points with the NutraSweet Company's position.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency also deems aspartame safe for most people and challenges the assertions of Internet rumormongers: "Some critics claim that aspartame is linked to a wide range of serious disorders such as multiple sclerosis, lupus erythrematosis, Gulf War Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, brain tumors and diabetes mellitus. However, most of the data to substantiate these claims is anecdotal and no reliable scientific evidence is available to show that aspartame might be responsible for these conditions," the agency concluded.

An MIT study reaffirms that aspartame is harmless for most users, but again, skeptics will object that the research was funded by a grant from the NutraSweet Company and therefore cannot be trusted.

On Jan. 12, 1999 the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation posted a rebuttal of online rumors connecting aspartame to multiple sclerosis, characterizing them as "rabidly inaccurate and scandalously misinformative." The article was researched and written by Dr. David Squillacote, neurologist and Senior Medical Adviser for the foundation. This was followed by an article published by the National MS Society which in part stated: "Many Internet surfers came across an article warning that the food additive aspartame was responsible for an MS 'epidemic.' In fact, none of the claims in the article were supported by scientific evidence." More from the MS Foundation: Examining the Safety of Aspartame by Ellen Guthrie, Pharm.D.

Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D. and professor of medicine and biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. In a 1999 feature for Intelihealth, he wrote: "A letter recently circulating on the Internet stated that aspartame can cause a number of illnesses: multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), as well as Alzheimer's disease. As far as I can ascertain, there is no reliable evidence to support the claim that aspartame causes any of these disorders." Responding to the claims that breakdown byproducts of aspartame are dangerous, he added: "While it is true that high heat can break down aspartame, there is no evidence that the breakdown products are toxic." In another Intelihealth Q & A feature, gastroenterologist Lawrence J. Cheskin, also of Johns Hopkins, wrote: "...the evidence is overwhelming that there are no health risks to use of aspartame in the usual amounts (even 64 ounces) for everyone except the one person in about 16,000 in the United States who has phenylketonuria and can't metabolize it."

The American Diabetes Association weighed in with this Feb. 9, 1999 statement: "The American Diabetes Association considers aspartame — as well as the other FDA-approved nonnutritive sweeteners saccharin, acesulfame K, and sucralose — acceptable sugar substitutes and a safe part of a diabetic meal plan."

The "aspartame scare" hit the mainsream media when the Associated Press moved a Jan. 29, 1999 article debunking the rumor. It stated that "MS and lupus have been around a lot longer than aspartame has, and repeated scientific studies have found no connection between the sweetener and such symptoms." The article cited the FDA and the ACSH, an alphabet soup that won't be to everyone's liking.

So, for those who would rather not take anyone's word on this — Betty Martini's, the FDA's, or the media's — I highly recommend taking the time to survey the last 20 years' worth of medical research on aspartame (courtesy of the MEDLINE database). I reviewed a good many of the journal abstracts on file there and, taking their conclusions as a whole, it appears to this layman that the "aspartame = death" theorists have wandered far afield from the proven facts.

Lastly, aspartame use is acknowledged (though not without controversy) to produce minor side effects in some people, most notably headaches (see Aspartame Ingestion and Headaches, Neurology, 1994).

Also, the FDA warns that persons with certain medical conditions, including pregnant women with hyperphenylalanine, should avoid aspartame:

Carefully controlled clinical studies show that aspartame is not an allergen. However, certain people with the genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU), those with advanced liver disease, and pregnant women with hyperphenylalanine (high levels of phenylalanine in blood) have a problem with aspartame because they do not effectively metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, one of aspartame's components. High levels of this amino acid in body fluids can cause brain damage. Therefore, FDA has ruled that all products containing aspartame must include a warning to phenylketonurics that the sweetener contains phenylalanine.
- FDA: Food Allergies Rare But Risky, May 1994


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