Sweet Betrayal

by Sibylle Preuschat

Despite its dubious safety record, the chemical sweetener aspartame remains on the market with the government's blessing. Yet suppliers of a safe natural alternative have been bullied and harassed by authorities for more than a decade.

The sweetness that millions enjoy in diet pop or sugar-free gum could be poisoning them. These and thousands of other popular foods often contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener invented in the 1960s that has been linked to a host of dangerous health conditions.

Meanwhile, government regulatory agencies in both the United States and Canada have banned a safe herbal sweetener called stevia, which is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Calorie-free, stevia is safe for diabetics and people with candida. It has been used for centuries in South America and decades in Japan without incident.

Many believe that when it comes to sweeteners, government agencies responsible for safeguarding public health in North America have abdicated their duties in favour of pandering to vested interests.

Aspartame: Sweet or Toxin?
Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Canada's Health Protection Branch (HPB) claim aspartame is safe. Yet, the U.S. Pentagon once listed aspartame in an inventory of prospective biochemical warfare weapons.

According to Julian Whitaker, MD, over 75 per cent of all non drug-related complaints made to the FDA involve aspartame. Consumers complain of headaches, dizziness, mood changes, numbness, vomiting and nausea, muscle cramps and spasms, abdominal pain and cramps, vision changes, joint pains, skin lesions, memory loss and seizures. In 1991, the U.S. National Institutes of Health published a list of 167 potential side effects of aspartame use.

In some cases, aspartame has caused death, blindness or multiple sclerosis-like symptoms. Several physicians and researchers have also linked aspartame ingestion with infertility and miscarriage. According to Florida physician Dr. H.J. Roberts, young children and fetuses are affected even more severely by aspartame than adults.

Why might aspartame have these effects?
The Web site of a prominent aspartame manufacturer claims: "Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and the methyl ester of phenylalanine. Aspartame is completely and quickly metabolized to its two amino acids...and methanol through normal pathways...The methanol is identical to that which we consume in much larger concentrations in fruits, vegetables and their juices...The body then converts methanol to formaldehyde and then to a metabolite called formate (formic acid). Formate is then quickly eliminated...in the form of carbon dioxide and water."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies formaldehyde and formate as toxic wastes. Formaldehyde causes cancer and is toxic to all cells, even in tiny doses. Writing to the Minneapolis Neuropathy Association, neurosurgeon Russell L. Blaylock cites research demonstrating that aspartame ingestion within allowable FDA limits leads to significant formaldehyde accumulation in the body, in forms very difficult to excrete.

Formaldehyde breaks down into formic acid or formate. The latter is caustic and causes eye and brain lesions in humans, leading to blindness, neurological difficulties, even death.

The aspartame manufacturer above claims that fruits and vegetables contain as much or more methanol (also called wood alcohol) than aspartame. Aspartame's critics, such as India's Dr. J. Barua, point out that, unlike aspartame, fruits and vegetables always contain even more abundant ethanol (also called grain alcohol). Ethanol prevents the breakdown of methanol into its toxic components.

Consumer complaints about aspartame have ranged from vomiting to memory loss to deteriorating vision.

Brain and Mood Symptoms
Aspartame has further problems. Dr. Whitaker states that brain/mood symptoms "could easily be caused by the changes in brain chemistry triggered by elevated phenylalanine." He points out that yet another breakdown product of aspartame, diketopiperazine (DKP), is linked to brain tumours.

How then, can aspartame's defenders insist it is safe? Firstly, consumer complaints are considered anecdotal reports, not credible scientific evidence.

Secondly, aspartame research appears to be tainted by vested interests. In 1996, Ralph G. Walton, MD, Chairman, The Center for Behavioral Medicine, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, completed an analysis of peer-reviewed medical literature on aspartame's safety for humans, using Medline and other databases. Of 164 studies analyzed, 74 had sponsors related to the aspartame industry; 90 were funded without any industry money. Of the 90 independent studies, 92 per cent identified one or more problems with aspartame. Of the 74 industry-sponsored studies, 100 per cent claimed to find no problems with aspartame.

Mark Gold, who provides Dr. Walton's analysis at his Web site on aspartame, comments: "This is reminiscent of tobacco industry research-which never finds problems with the product, but nearly all of the independent studies do find problems." 

Stevia: Safe and Sweet 
Stevia rebaudiana is a plant long known to natives of the South American region now comprising Paraguay. Europeans discovered stevia in 1899. In 1992, Daniel Mowrey, PhD, reviewed stevia's properties and safety. He found evidence that stevia lowers blood sugar in diabetics but not in healthy people, and that it improves digestion and immunity. Mowrey points out that stevia has been used in South America for over 1,500 years and that, after 10 years of Japanese use, not a single side effect had been reported. Japanese regulatory authorities also evaluated stevia's potential toxicity before approving the herb and were unable to find any toxic effects.

Mowrey describes one study which found that intestinal microbes in rats can break down stevioside, a key component of stevia, into steviol, a potentially toxic compound. However, all evidence indicates that steviosides are very stable and pass through human digestive tracts unchanged.

The vast majority of independent studies have identified problems with aspartame.

Regulatory Riddles
Given the track records of these two sweeteners, why is aspartame sold with the government's blessing both in Canada and the U.S., while stevia is not?

Mary Nash Stoddard, founder of the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network and herself a victim of aspartame toxicity, has extensively documented the history of aspartame's path to approval in 1981. Her work indicates that cover-ups of damning research results, combined with vested interests of key FDA officials, made the chemical's approval in the U.S. possible. "Our FDA seems to be corrupted by influence from outside sources, by private industry sources," says Stoddard.

For example, the FDA Commissioner who approved aspartame, Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., three months later got a $1,000 per day job with the PR firm of G.D. Searle, aspartame's initial manufacturer.

Some FDA toxicologists did give evidence that Searle presented extremely poor and falsified aspartame research to the FDA, including cover-ups of animal deaths and tumours. As a result, Searle was placed under investigation for criminal acts in 1977. However, the federal prosecutor excused himself the same year, taking a position with Searle's legal firm! His replacement dragged his heels on the investigation, then also went on to join Searle's legal firm!

The CEO brought in to Searle during the aspartame approval process, who was former Chief of Staff in the Ford administration, publicly stated that he would call in his markers (political favours) to get aspartame approved.
In Canada, the Health Protection Branch also approved the sale of aspartame in 1981. An HPB statement says Health Canada "evaluated an extensive array of toxicological tests in lab animals and, since its use, we have examined the results of a number of clinical studies in humans. We have found no evidence that the consumption of foods using this sweetener...would pose any health hazard to consumers."

Stevia Seized by Authorities

While aspartame enjoys fully approved status throughout North America, stevia has had a cool reception from regulatory agencies.

Journalists Linda and Bill Bonvie traced stevia's American history in a New Age Journal article (January/February 1996). According to the Bonvies, stevia was becoming a popular sweetener choice of American food processors in the mid-1980s: "But just as the industry was poised to take off, the FDA launched a particularly aggressive search-and-seizure campaign that was followed in 1991 by a virtual blockade of stevia through the issuance of an 'import alert.'" After the U.S. Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in the fall of 1994, however, the Agency was forced to allow the herb's sale as a dietary supplement.

Yet the FDA will not allow stevia to be used or advertised as a sweetener, claiming to be motivated by public safety concerns. Its opponents beg to differ. The Bonvies quote Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation, as stating: "Sweetness is big money. Nobody wants to see something cheap and easy to grow on the market competing with the things they worked so hard to get approved." 

His words seem borne out by FDA actions. In at least three stevia seizures or embargos, trade complaints from other (as yet unidentified) companies instigated the actions. Further, the FDA has rejected or stonewalled numerous applications to have stevia approved as a food additive/sweetener despite extensive documentation proving the herb's safety.

The FDA's seeming paranoia about stevia led the Agency to attempt to burn books about the herb.

Book Burning Attempt
The FDA's seeming stevia paranoia has taken the agency so far as to attempt a book burning. Oscar Rodes is co-owner of Arlington, Texas-based Stevita Company Inc., which grows and processes stevia in Brazil for export. After weathering the 1991 embargo, Rodes again began marketing stevia in the U.S. after the Dietary Supplement Act passage. He also began selling independently published books about stevia. In January 1998, Rodes received a warning letter from the FDA, advising him he was selling literature portraying stevia as a conventional food and therefore as an unapproved food additive.

Rodes removed all sales literature describing stevia's use as a sweetener in South America, and all links on his Web site to sites mentioning stevia's sweetening power. But because he continued selling the books, the FDA began to embargo his stevia shipments in February. "They kept our products as hostage to this situation," says Rodes. In May, still embargoed, Rodes decided to stop selling books and instructed his attorney to inform the FDA. Within days FDA inspectors arrived, without a court order, to "witness the destruction of the books." 

Rodes refused - besides, he informed the officials, he had no city permit allowing him to burn books outside. He called his attorney and instructed his secretary to keep a video camera trained on the inspectors. Wary of the camera, the inspectors finally marked some books, making them unsaleable.

Apparently still unsatisfied, the FDA continued to embargo Rodes's herbs. Not until late July did his attorney's efforts, coupled with publicity, convince the Agency to allow him to sell both supplements and books provided that he stop selling a cookbook that mentioned his company's name, a demand he has complied with.

In Canada, the situation is less dramatic. Stevia leaves, says an HPB statement, can be sold as "herbal and tea preparations." However, with regard to stevia extracts, "there is no provision in the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations for the use of this substance as a sweetening agent in foods." To gain such approval, a Canadian company would have to make an application - an extremely costly endeavour. The HPB's position, like the FDA's, appears to ignore the voluminous evidence of stevia's safety.

Meanwhile, the enormous profits generated by patented artificial sweeteners seem able to figuratively blind individuals and government agencies alike, making the sale of millions of pounds of sweet toxins possible.

Cooking with Stevia: The Basics

You may be able to find liquid or powdered stevia at your health food store. Here are a few tips on its use.*
    • For best results use pure white powdered stevia extract or white stevia liquid concentrate.
    • One teaspoon powdered extract or liquid concentrate has about the same sweetening power as one cup of sugar.
    • Stevia combines well with lemon juice, fruits, tomatoes, dairy foods, chocolate and carob.
    • Stevia does not ferment, discolour or lose sweetness at high temperatures.
    • Stevia may have to be combined with other sweetening agents in baked goods, as it does not feed yeast fermentation.
      Source: The Stevia Cookbook, by Donna Gates and Ray Sahelian, MD (Avery, 1999). The book contains over 100 recipes that use stevia as the only sweetener.
      For Great Tasting Stevia Visit the
 WholeApproach online store: for BioQuest Stevina and NuNaturals SteviaSIDEBAR #2
Consumer Beware!

When you're buying groceries, remember:
    • Thousands of processed foods contain aspartame.
    • Aspartame is sold under several brand names.
    • "Diet" and "sugar-free" foods are more likely to contain aspartame.
    • If you choose to eat sweetened foods, stick to companies you feel you can trust to provide full disclosure of all ingredients.
    --SP This article by Sibylle Preuschat first appeared in the June/July 1999 issue of Health Naturally magazine