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Submission on aspartame petition to Health Committee

23 July 2008

We are presenting this submission to the Health Committee on behalf of over 8,000 people from throughout New Zealand, and especially for all those who have become aware that their symptoms of ill health are due to consuming products with aspartame.

The artificial sweetener aspartame (951) is the most controversial and complained about additive in history, and for good reason, as many people suffer a range of symptoms from aspartame consumption, from mild and transitory to debilitating and life-threatening. It is significant that non-industry funded studies have found various adverse health effects from aspartame, whereas industry-funded studies do not find problems. We cannot underestimate the power and sophistication of industry to maintain and expand its profit and market share, regardless of the health consequences of exposure to this substance.

In this submission we will briefly consider the exposure rate to aspartame and a few selected health effects of the many that have been reported in research, clinical studies and anecdotally.

Widespread exposure to aspartame

Aspartame is being used in an increasing number of products, an estimated 6000 products worldwide, not just those labelled 'diet' and 'sugar free' but also in chewing gum, sports drinks, dietary supplements and medications. Sometimes the only warning is 'contains phenylalanine'. An estimated one in 15 people consume aspartame around the world.

Aspartame in medicine particularly is a problem, as this does not have to be labelled with its ingredients. Recent formulations of several anti-seizure drugs, at least in the US, eg Dilantin, Depacoat, Tegratol, and in New Zealand a preparation for colonoscopy, Picoprep, have been reported to contain aspartame. Manufacturers are increasingly using aspartame because it is cheaper and more convenient than sugar and also because of consumer concern about obesity.

The Government has made an agreement with industry to phase out sugar drinks in secondary schools by 2009, in an attempt to control the obesity epidemic. However, manufacturers are maintaining their market share in schools by substituting diet drinks. Exposure of young people to aspartame is therefore potentially increasing.

Some immediate reactions to aspartame

There are many and varied immediate reactions to aspartame consumption. Over 10,000 people reported 92 symptoms to the FDA, with headache, dizziness or problems with balance, change in mood quality or level being the most common, and many neurological symptoms . Apart from these 92 symptoms, Dr HJ Roberts, a widely respected doctor who has won an award for his humanitarian work, quotes many more from his clinical studies and other research in his medical text 'Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic'. He estimates, in fact, that every doctor probably encounters aspartame disease in practice.

In Appendix A is the story of a Wellington man, extremely allergic to formaldehyde, whose condition improved miraculously after he avoided aspartame products. Jacob and Steele detail how children particularly can develop an allergy to formaldehyde with exposure to aspartame and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives which are present in a number of toiletries.

Some individuals may consume aspartame products for several years and may not notice immediate symptoms. However, there is often a point when their health deteriorates, sometimes dramatically. Appendix B covers such a case: a woman who still suffers some effects after consuming aspartame products for seven years and abstaining from them for the last five years.

Sometimes the combination of problematic additives can cause a worse reaction. Lau and colleagues found that a combination of aspartame and quinoline yellow (104) had an effect on cells up to seven times greater than the additives on their own, and that a combination of MSG and brilliant blue (133) had an effect four times greater. The authors suggest that these substances may interact to interfere with the development of the nervous system . A Hamilton woman, whose story is in Appendix C, has discovered that a combination of aspartame, MSG and tartrazine (102) is much more likely to trigger symptoms in her son.

Interaction with drugs and effects on the brain

In New Zealand the Minister of Health has confirmed that Medsafe has approved a total of 124 medicines containing aspartame and 81 of these can be given to children. A particularly alarming feature of aspartame being included in an increasing number of medicines is its potential to interact with them.

Dr Roberts describes in his medical text how aspartame interacts with Coumadin, Dilantin, antidepressants, other psychotropic agents and all cardiac medications. He discusses various mechanisms for this, including alteration of the blood proteins to which drugs attach, interference with drug action by amino acids and protein, and metabolic abnormalities in the elderly that are known to enhance their vulnerability to drug reactions. Bowen and Evangelista describe another process, where, because aspartame damages the mitochondria of the cell, it has the capability of interacting with all drugs and some additives, including vaccines, MSG (621), and other artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (955) .

A number of independent researchers have noted an increased susceptibility to seizures with aspartame consumption, in contrast to industry-funded studies which found none . However, as Gaby points out in his review, one limitation of the latter studies is the use of capsules as opposed to diet drinks or foods with aspartame added . The recent inclusion of aspartame in several anti-seizure medications would therefore be counter-productive and potentially life-threatening to patients.

The different chemical processes of excitotoxins such as aspartame and MSG impacting on the brain are described in reviews by Humphries and colleagues and also Blaylock . The subsequent brain cell damage can particularly affect pregnant women, unborn babies and newborns, producing changes in the brain that are irreversible, depending on when it is stopped. Blaylock remarks that aspartame can reprogram the wiring of the brain, particularly the hypothalamus, so it does not function normally. He points out that there is some evidence that subtoxic doses of such substances can alter the cells physiology. Affected children may be abnormal for the rest of their lives in terms of their physiological function.

Diabetes and aspartame

Diabetics are a group likely to have a high consumption of aspartame products. With over 50 years of experience, Dr Roberts, a diabetic specialist, points out that aspartame can precipitate diabetes, simulates and aggravates diabetic retinopathy and neuropathy, destroys the optic nerve, can cause diabetics to go into convulsions and interacts with insulin. His patients notice a dramatic improvement in their condition when they avoid aspartame . Fernand and colleagues noticed a drop in glucose levels of type 2 diabetics during exercise and cautioned that there are important concerns raised concerning aspartame safety .

Studies which purport to demonstrate the safety of aspartame for diabetes have been criticised because of the use of non-inert ingredients in the control groups, for example, corn starch and MSG .

Obesity and aspartame

There is no research which conclusively proves that use of aspartame helps with weight loss. Much research finds that not consuming sugar beverages leads to significant weight loss. However, separating the effects of withdrawing from sugar beverages from the use of aspartame is more problematic. One review on weight loss and aspartame, funded by an aspartame manufacturer, focussed on studies in which the control groups were consuming sugar beverages . Its conclusion that weight control is helped by aspartame consumption is debatable because of the inability in the nine studies concerned to separate out other causes of weight loss, such as the cessation of sugar beverage consumption, exercise and non-sweetened beverages such as water. Another study also carried out in 2006 repeated the same flaws and did not report separately those who drank water from those who drank diet drinks .

There is, however, some research that shows aspartame and other artificial sweeteners induce carbohydrate craving, which results in weight gain. A 2005 study conducted over eight years at the University of Texas reported a "41% increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day ."

Cancer and aspartame

The registration of aspartame was rejected by the FDA in the 1970s because of tests in lab animals resulting in brain tumours and seizures, and also because of sloppy and fraudulent testing as revealed by an audit. Since its registration in 1981 through political manoeuvrings, many studies have been done on the carcinogenicity of aspartame. A notable feature is that industry-funded scientists do not find evidence of carcinogenicity. More recently the Ramazzini Foundation has carried out some studies which provide some evidence of its carcinogenicity, particularly if there is prenatal exposure. Subsequent worldwide publicity of these studies has resulted in very prompt attacks on them by scientists with industry connections, in spite of the fact that the studies were very rigorously peer-reviewed, anticipating controversy. (The 2005 study, for example, was peer-reviewed by seven other experts, when two is the norm.)

We would really welcome scientists in our Food Safety Authority taking a much more dispassionate and objective consideration of both sides of the aspartame debate, instead of tenaciously supporting a viewpoint which coincides with that of the manufacturers. We are disappointed, for example, that the Authority has publicly supported its pro-aspartame stance by quoting an industry-funded review published last year. This review accepted without question studies which did not show adverse effects, criticised heavily and omitted mention of several others that did, and neglected to mention ethanol, the natural counterbalance of methanol .

Because of the increasing adverse effects reported by many people around the world, there have been several attempts to ban or restrict aspartame, for example, in the United States, Philippines, South Africa, New Mexico, Hawaii, UK (where 47 MPs called for a ban) and Indonesia. Sophisticated pressure from aspartame manufacturers has ensured that these attempts have been stymied, in spite of the huge public health impact. A bill to ban aspartame was successfully introduced, however, in the Philippines earlier this year. It is a bizarre anomaly that another intense and relatively benign sweetener, xylitol, carries a label warning of possible digestive problems, when aspartame, capable of causing many more severe problems, carries none, apart from a label warning those with an intolerance to phenylalanine, one of the components of aspartame.

In view of the above, we would like to respectfully request that the House of Representatives restrict the artificial sweetener aspartame (951) until a ban can be enforced. We believe that exposure to this addictive neurotoxin is causing a public health epidemic rivalling that of tobacco.

Specifically, we request the following:

  1. Warning labels on all products containing aspartame to increase awareness of symptoms associated with aspartame toxicity, particularly to alert pregnant women and mothers of small children.
  2. A public education programme to raise awareness about adverse reactions to aspartame.
  3. A programme to raise awareness within the medical profession of the symptoms associated with aspartame toxicity, to prevent incorrect diagnosis of conditions that may be related to aspartame toxicity.
  4. Removal of all products containing aspartame and other artificial sweeteners from schools to reduce toxic effects on young people, thus reducing any behavioural and psychological problems that may result from these effects.

Alison White, Co-convenor, Safe Food Campaign, MA(Hons), Dip Tchg, DPH, MPH Candidate, Wellington School of Medicine.

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