NutraSweet, American’s newest sugar substitute, has been an overnight sensation. But, while NutraSweet has been touted as the most tested food additive in history, an extensive investigation by COMMON CAUSE MAGAZINE revealed such serious flaws in the government approval of NutraSweet that it called for Congress to begin its own investigation immediately.
The COMMON CAUSE investigation, based on dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents, many obtained under the Freedom of Information act, raises serious concerns about whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established that aspartame — the scientific name for NutraSweet — is safe.
The investigation shows that some scientists say tests have not resolved major health issues — including whether aspartame can cause cancerous brain tumors, and whether it can affect brain chemistry and therefore behavior. The magazine also learned that some scientists have serious concerns about the sweetener’s potential effects on children and pregnant women.
Meanwhile, the FDA acknowledges receiving at least 600 consumer complaints relating to aspartame. In these complaints, obtained under the FOIA, people allege that they have suffered headaches, rashes, dizziness, menstrual problems and seizures after consuming aspartame. The complaints, most of which were received in 1984, are being investigated by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
FDA commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes approved aspartame in dry foods three months after taking office in April 1981 despite the fact that some of the FDA’s own scientists had serious reservations about the validity and quality of pivotal tests used in his decision.
Two FDA officials said Hayes was determined to push aspartame forward, in part as a signal that the Reagan administration was ushering in a new regulatory era.
In 1983, just two months before leaving the FDA, Hayes approved aspartame for use in soft drinks, dramatically expanding its use.
The financial consequences of Hayes’ decisions were enormous for G. D. Searle & Co. which owns the patent on NutraSweet.
Searle’s U.S. sales of NutraSweet and Equal (the powdered sugar substitute) reached $74 million in 1982. By the end of 1983, following soft drink approval in the summer, sales had jumped to $336 million.
Most of the increase was attributed to soft drink use.
While much has been written about the debate over the safety of NutraSweet, the COMMON CAUSE article was the first to carefully put together the entire story of the government’s aspartame approval process which took place over a 10-year period. The questions raised deserve more critical press attention.
COMMON CAUSE MAGAZINE, July/August 1984, “How Safe Is Your Diet Soft Drink?” by Florence Graves, pp 24-43.