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Submission on aspartame petition

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.

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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 [1]. 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[2].

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 [3]. 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) [4].

A number of independent researchers have noted an increased susceptibility to seizures with aspartame consumption, in contrast to industry-funded studies which found none [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [7] and also Blaylock [8]. 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 [9]. 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 [10].

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 [11].

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 [12]. 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 [13].

There is, however, some research that shows aspartame and other artificial sweeteners induce carbohydrate craving, which results in weight gain [14] [15] [16]. 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 [17]."

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 [18].

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[19]) 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.


[1] A full list of symptoms as reported to the FDA is available at:

[2] Jacob SE & Steele T (2007): Avoiding formaldehyde allergic reactions in children Pediatric Annals. Jan.; 36(1): 55-6.

[3] Lau K et al (2006) : Synergistic interactions between commonly used food additives in a developmental neurotoxicity test. Toxicol Sci. Mar;90(1):178-87.

[4] Bowen J, Evangelista MA (2002): Brain cell damage from amino acid isolates: a primary concern from aspartame-based products and artificial sweetening agents. brain_damage.htm.

[5] Mortelmans LJ et al (2008): Seizures and hyponatremia after excessive intake of diet coke. Eur J Emerg Med. Feb;15(1):51

Wurtman RJ (1985): Aspartame: possible effect on seizure susceptibility. Lancet;2:1060.

Walton RG (1986): Seizure and mania after high intake of aspartame. Psychosomatics 1986;27:218,220.

[6] Gaby AR (2007): Natural approaches to epilepsy. Altern Med Rev. Mar;12(1):9-24.

[7] Humphries P (2008): Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 62, 451-462

[8] Blaylock RL (1997): Excitotoxins the Taste that Kill. Health Press, Santa Fe.

[9] Roberts HJ (2001): Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic. Sunshine Sentinel Press.

[10] Ferland A et al (2007): Is aspartame really safer in reducing the risk of hypoglycemia during exercise in patients with type 2 diabetes? Diabetes Care. Jul;30(7):e59

[11] Roberts HJ (2001): Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic. Sunshine Sentinel Press.

[12] de la Hunty A (2006): A review of the effectiveness of aspartame in helping with weight control. British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin 31 , 115-128.

[13] Ebbeling CB et al (2006): Effects of Decreasing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Body Weight in Adolescents: A Randomized, Controlled Pilot Study Pediatrics 2006;117;673-680.

[14] Swithers SE and Davidson TL (2008): A role for sweet taste: Calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats. Behavioral Neuroscience. Feb Vol 122(1) 161-173.

[15] Pierce WD et al (2007):Overeating by young obesity-prone and lean rats caused by tastes associated with low energy foods. Obesity (Silver Spring). Aug;15(8):1969-79.

[16] Lavin, JH et al (1997): The Effect of Sucrose- and Aspartame-Sweetened Drinks on Energy Intake, Hunger and Food Choice of Female, Moderately Restrained Eaters. Inter J Obesity. Vol.21, 37-42.

[17] Fowler SP et al (2005): Abstract 1058-P presented at the 65th Annual Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association, San Diet, June 10-14.

18 Magnuson, BA et al (2007): Aspartame: A Safety Evaluation Based on Current Use Levels, Regulations, and Toxicological and Epidemiological Studies, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 37:8, 629 - 727.


Appendix A My allergy to formaldehyde Over some years I used to consume various aspartame products daily, including 4-5 Smints and 1-2 glasses of diet tonic water. About six years ago I woke up one morning finding some difficulties with breathing and I thought I had suddenly developed asthma. Within an hour I was breathing properly again but the breathing difficulties got worse over the next few weeks until I was forced to go to my doctor. About the same time I started to itch, with intense itching particularly on my legs.

An allergy test at Wellington Hospital showed I was extremely allergic to formaldehyde. The skin specialist was as puzzled about this as I was because I was not knowingly exposed to any formaldehyde. In the meantime the itching became so unbelievably intense that nothing would stop me scratching. For some years my wife had to bandage my legs for me and it was extremely uncomfortable. I went to three or four skin specialists who prescribed various remedies, but none helped.

I contacted Alison White of the Safe Food Campaign after seeing a poster about a food workshop at the end of 2007. She warned me about taking anything with aspartame, especially as it contains an ingredient that breaks down to formaldehyde.

The result has been absolutely miraculous: in a matter of a few days my asthma subsided dramatically. My asthma has now almost disappeared. My itching has stopped, my skin has returned to normal, I'm sleeping well. At age 76 I'm really starting to feel just great again. I'm very grateful to have got this advice and I only wish that I had contacted Alison six years ago, then I wouldn't have had to go through all this agony.

Appendix B My aspartame story I began drinking fizzy diet drinks from about 1988. I was drinking a litre of diet coke or lemonade a day for seven years. No one told me they were bad for me, and back then it didn't occur to me to research food or drink items that were readily available for sale.

Then one hot day at the end of 1994, I experienced something that felt like a massive hit in the head, and from that moment on, I was constantly dizzy, disoriented, had blurred vision, and extreme numbness and tingling on the right side of my face.

A visit to doctors and an MRI scan revealed no visible physical problems. So I was on my own with this, no one knew what was going on. In addition, I was suffering anxiety and depression, which I had never experienced before, and my relationships, confidence and self-esteem all suffered.

I spent most of 1995 having tests of various kinds, and one by one researching every food or drink item that I had habitually consumed - to try and find out what had affected me. I put myself on elimination diets to remove items one by one from my diet to see if it made any difference. Then I got around to researching the diet drinks, and discovered that aspartame can cause the exact same symptoms I experienced.

I was relieved to have located the probable source of my illness, but I was also very angry that this stuff was allowed to be sold for human consumption, and that I now had this very scary (and lonely) bad health situation to deal with. My symptoms eventually diminished on a predominantly organic diet, but it took 5 years (until 2000), for the symptoms to diminish to what I am left with now: a partial permanent loss of sensation on the right side of my face, and heightened sensitivity to many chemicals. I read all my food and drink labels now, but we can never be truly safe while 951 is a legal additive.

Appendix C My son's reactions to aspartame and MSG When my son was nine he experienced a series of traumatic events which included being bullied, falling out of a tree and breaking his arm, and problems controlling his bowel movements. The migraines he developed were initially controlled with Panadol. Under the guidance of a naturopath, we put him on a restrictive diet, so he ate only plain wholesome food. We then reintroduced foods one at a time, and we were able to detect which foods he reacted to. Later he was diagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome. Following a regime of good food (we have our own fruit, vegetables, meat and milk on our organic lifestyle block), his headaches and bowel problems became less frequent.

As we did not eat a high concentration of foods containing MSG, aspartame or artificial colourings, it was a while before we could link symptoms to their consumption. We found they could trigger migraines and the return of his bowel problems, especially in combination.

Now if he does have one or the other problems, I ask what he has been eating. The hardest thing for us is children's parties, or visiting friends, when there is an overload of items available containing MSG eg polonies, sausages rolls, chips, dip, topped off with fanta and coke !!

What annoys me most is having to constantly troll the supermarket aisles and watch the ingredients column. Even foods that advertise on the front of the packet 'NO MSG ADDED), can still have MSG in them. Aspartame is not so difficult to spot as it is in most things labelled "sugar free". New Zealand and Australian companies seem to be including these additives in more and more products, so when my son gets a headache and we track it back to a product he has always eaten, then read the small print to find it is now included.

I feel that any campaign advocating for education and product notification of the existence of these food additives in the food chain must be good. It took us about 5 years to go through this process. If there had been warning labels with products containing aspartame, MSG and artificial colours such as tartrazine, I think this process could have been shortened.


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