Once upon a time, aspartame was listed by the Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent. Today it's an integral part of the modern diet. Sold commercially under names like NutraSweet and Canderel, aspartame can be found in more than 5,000 foods, including fizzy drinks, chewing gum, table-top sweeteners, diet and diabetic foods, breakfast cereals, jams, sweets, vitamins, prescription and over-the-counter drugs. This means that there is a good chance that you and your family are among the two thirds of the adult population and 40 per cent of children who regularly ingest this artificial sweetener.
Because it contains no calories, aspartame is considered a boon to health-conscious individuals everywhere; and most of us, if we think about it at all, think it is safe. But independent scientists say aspartame can produce a range of disturbing adverse effects in humans, including headaches, memory loss, mood swings, seizures, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's-like symptoms, tumours and even death.
Concerns over aspartame's toxicity meant that for eight years, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied it approval, effectively keeping it off the world market. This caution was based on compelling evidence, brought to light by numerous eminent scientists, litigators and consumer groups, that aspartame contributed to serious central nervous system damage and had been shown to cause cancer in animals. Eventually, however, political muscle, won out over scientific rigour, and aspartame was approved for use in 1981 (see timeline for details).
The FDA's about-turn opened the floodgates for aspartame's swift approval by more than 70 regulatory authorities around the world. But, as the remarkable history of the sweetener shows, the clean bill of health given to it by government regulators - whose raison d'etre should be to protect the public from harm - is simply not worth the paper it is printed on.
ASPARTAME REACTIONS: A HIDDEN EPIDEMIC
ASPARTAME'S TOXIC CONTENTS
LIFE AFTER ASPARTAME
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2005