Artificial Sweeteners aspartame

Aspartame: A History of Controversy, but Is It Safe?

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Pink, Yellow or Blue? Which Low-Calorie Sweetener Are You?!

I’m sure somewhere in a women’s magazine there is a quiz that associates the reader’s personality, or the type of man she should date, or some other unassociated trait with random questions playing up on the fact that women have been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to diet. In recent years, beverage companies have started rolling out campaigns that appeal to the other 50% of the population. Most notably, Dr. Pepper Ten is advertised as the “manliest low-calorie soda in the history of mankind.” This soda is also advertised as “not for women.”

Yet, in spite of million dollar marketing campaigns, consumers are making better choices. According to Beverage Digest, the sales volume for Coke fell 1% last year, but Diet Coke sales dropped by 3%. Similarly, Pepsi fell by 3.4% and Diet Pepsi fell by 6.2%. Diet sports beverages also dropped in sales compared to their regular product.

Due to these declines, Coca-Cola is rolling out a set of advertisements about the safety of aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener with a controversial history. There is as much “evidence” that this artificial food additive is safe as there is evidence that it causes health problems including brain tumors, seizures, blindness, the auto-immune disease Lupus, and much more. I’ll let the history of this product speak for itself on the controversy of consumer safety, but first what is it?

Aspartame Ingredients

Aspartame is a man-made chemical that is approximately 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid, and 10% methanol. Today, it is made using genetically modified bacteria developed by none other than Monsanto, of course. The ingredients occur naturally, so they are safe, right?

Phenylalanine is a neurotoxin and can build up in the blood due to the high levels in aspartame. Phenylalanine causes serotonin levels to decrease leading to depression. It can also cause behavioral symptoms in kids including ADD and ADHD. Individuals who have the genetic disorder Phenylketonuric (PKU) cannot metabolize phenylalanine and the high levels in aspartame can cause death (overtime the chemicals in aspartame can build up in the body and cause death even if an individual does not have PKU).

Aspartic Acid is an excito-toxin, which means it over stimulates certain neurons in the body until they die. When aspartic acid is in its free form, or unbound to proteins (as it occurs naturally in food), it leads to a high level of neurotransmitters in certain areas of the brain which kills neurons and leads to numerous neurological disorders including, but not limited to: multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, hypoglycemia, memory loss, hormonal problems, epilepsy, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.

The argument that phenylalanine and aspartic acid are safe is based on the fact that they are amino acids, the building blocks of protein that both occur in regular foods. In nature, however, these amino acids are consumed in more natural quantities and different combinations (oh, and they aren’t made in a lab).

Methanol – this is wood alcohol and when ingested becomes formaldehyde or embalming fluid. While there is naturally occurring methanol in fruits, it binds with the pectin in fruit, which the body cannot digest, and is excreted through the body’s natural waste process without doing damage. We do not digest high levels of methanol when eating organic, whole foods. Methanol is a neurotoxin and known carcinogen. The EPA recommends limiting consumption of methanol to 7.8 milligrams per day. One liter of an aspartame-sweetened beverage contains over 50 mg of methanol.

A Long History of Controversy

The history of getting FDA approval of this product is rich in corruption and deceit.

  • 1965 – James Schlatter, a chemist at G. D. Searle was researching an ulcer drug and accidentally discovers a zero calorie sweetener that is 180 times sweeter than sugar.
  • 1967 – G. D. Searle starts conducting tests on the new potential product. These are tests required by the FDA. In the first test conducted on 7 monkeys, 1 died and 5 suffer from grand mal seizures.
  • 1971 – Neuroscientist Dr. John Olney conducts a study and discovers that aspartame causes brain tumors. Previously Dr. Olney conducted safety tests on MSG and successfully had the food additive removed from baby food. He concludes that aspartic acid, one of the key ingredients of aspartame, causes holes in the brains of infant mice. One of Searle’s scientists makes the same conclusion during his testing.
  • February 1973 – After spending tens of millions of dollars testing the safety of aspartame, G. D. Searle submits over 100 studies to the FDA requesting approval for consumer consumption.
  • March 1973 – One of the first FDA scientists to review the aspartame safety data states that “the information provided (by Searle) is inadequate to permit an evaluation of the potential toxicity of aspartame”. Notes in her report that further clinical tests are needed.
  • July 1974 – FDA approves use of aspartame in dry food products.
  • August 1974 – Attorney Jim Turner, consumer advocate who worked helped get the previous reigning artificial sweetener, Cyclamate, off the market for its links to cancer, and Dr. Olney file objections of the approval of aspartame in dry foods.
  • 1976 – An investigation reveals that the required studies conducted by the G. D. Searle company and reported to the FDA were not conducted or reported properly. The investigators report they “had never seen anything as bad as Searle’s testing.”
  • January 1977 – The FDA requests the US Attorney’s Office to begin grand jury proceedings to investigate whether indictments should be filed against G. D. Searle for submitting false test results on the product. This is the first time the FDA requested a criminal investigation on a manufacturer.
  • March 1977 – G. D. Searle hires Donald Rumsfield as CEO. Donald Rumsfield hires numerous former politicians in order to save the company.
  • July 1977 – Samuel Skinner resigns from his position in the US Attorney’s Office to take a job with G. D. Searle’s representing law firm, Sidley & Austin. Skinner was the US Attorney in charge of the investigation. Due to Skinner’s resignation the grand jury investigation is postponed and it reaches its statute of limitations and the case is dropped.
  • August 1977 – The FDA releases the Bressler Report. The report finds that 98 of the 196 animals died during one of Searle’s studies weren’t autopsied until later dates, in some cases over one year after death. The report released many more inconsistencies. You can read the FDA’s findings here.
  • 1980 – The Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) voted unanimously to reject the use of aspartame until further studies could be conducted. They were concerned with the high rate of brain tumors in animals used in studies.
  • January 1981 – The day after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan appoints Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes as FDA commissioner. His advisor for this decision was Donald Rumsfield, CEO of G. D. Searle, at that time.
  • March 1981 – Hayes establishes a commissioner’s panel to review issues brought up by the PBOI. During this review, three of the six FDA scientists reviewing the data on brain tumors advise against the approval of aspartame due to the unreliability of G. D. Searle’s tests.
  • July 1981 – Hayes overrules the PBOI, ignoring the recommendation of his appointed FDA Commissioner’s panel.
  • 1982 – Searle files a petition that aspartame be approved in beverages.
  • July 1983 – The National Soft Drink Association drafts an objection to the final ruling to permit the use of aspartame in beverages due to its questionable safety.
  • September 1983 – FDA Commissioner Hayes resigns and accepts a position as a senior scientific consultant at Burson-Marsteller, Searle’s public relation firm.
  • Fall 1983 – First beverages using aspartame as ingredient are sold.
  • 1985 – Monsanto buys G. D. Searle in spite of the controversy over aspartame.

For a more detailed timeline, click here for “How Aspartame Became Legal – the Timeline” on

Fast Forward Twenty Five Years to 2013

Today we are more aware and skeptical than ever about the politics and bribery involved in getting a product approved by the FDA, yet aspartame is in over 6,000 consumer products. Our diet obsessed culture has overlooked the corruption and dangers of this chemical food additive and let it poison our own bodies and our children. According to the Aspartame Information Center, “aspartame is consumed by over 200 million people around the world and is found in more than 6,000 products including carbonated soft drinks, powdered soft drinks, chewing gum, confections, gelatins, dessert mixes, puddings and fillings, frozen desserts, yogurt, tabletop sweeteners, and some pharmaceuticals such as vitamins and sugar-free cough drops.” Most consumers associate this food additive to diet drinks and products, but it is now added to most processed foods including those marketed for children. It is marketed as “safe” but as you can see in the history of the product, there have never been any properly conducted studies that conclude that this product is safe.

With the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes on the rise, especially in children, we are looking for easy ways to cut calories. It’s much easier to reach for something labeled and advertised as “calorie-free” instead of eating healthy, whole foods low in sugar and free of chemical enhancements. However, this well marketed shortcut is not the solution to our nation’s health problems and is actually causing a rise in numerous health issues. Aspartame leads to behavioral disorders, seizures, brain tumors, auto-immune diseases, various neurological disorders, and it also causes weight gain and sugar cravings (which lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes which is what promoters argue it helps fight).

So, pink, yellow or blue? Pick your poison. Or ditch the women’s magazines’ various yo-yo DIEts and create a healthy LIFEstyle for yourself and your family so you can figuratively have your cake and eat it too.

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Evan-Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This article was published originally on Hormones Matter on August 20, 2013.

Lisbeth Prifogle is a freelance writer, Marine officer, and globetrotter currently in San Diego, CA. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and a BA from DePauw University. Lisbeth spent six months in Iraq and is working on a memoir about her experiences. She keeps a blog titled The Next Bold Move and her work can be found in the 11th issue of Poem Memoir Story, The Splinter Generation, and In the Know Travel. Lisbeth has had problems balancing hormones since she was a teenager and is constantly researching and exploring natural remedies including diet, exercise, and alternative medicines.

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