Chemical Brews: Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
The American Dietetic Association groups sweeteners into two major categories: nutritive and non-nutritive. Nutritive sweeteners provide energy to the body; non-nutritive sweeteners do not, which means they sweeten without calories. Thus, non-nutritive sweeteners have been the backbone of the diet industry.
The FDA currently approves five non-nutritive sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, sucralose, and neotame. The FDA banned cyclamate in 1969 and has never approved alitame, which is similar to aspartame.
Aspartame, or 1-aspartyl 1-phenylalanine methyl ester, was discovered by accident when James Schlatter, while working on creating new drugs to treat ulcers, accidentally licked his fingers in order to pick up a piece of paper. Aspartame is 80 times sweeter than sucrose, or table sugar. And, according to Jim Earle in “Sugar-Free Blues: Everything You Wanted to Know About Artificial Sweeteners,” February 2004 (http://www.westonaprice.org/modern-foods/570-sugar-free-blues.html ), aspartame is the most widely used non-nutritive sweetener. By 1992, Earle writes, Americans were using 8.4 million pounds of aspartame yearly, which represents 80 percent of world demand. About 70 percent of aspartame is used in soft drinks, but it is added also to “more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals.” Aspartame is sold under several brand names, including NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonfuls, Canderel, Bienvia, NatraSweet, and Miwan.
Earle explains that during digestion, aspartame degrades into methanol, or wood alcohol, and two amino acids: phenylalanine, the largest component by weight, and aspartic acid. Methanol is a known, lethal poison that can cause, Devra Davis notes in THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR ON CANCER (2007), blindness and brain damage. And, she notes that methanol content of aspartame is “a thousand times greater than most foods under FDA control” (421).
Phenylalanine, Earle notes, is dangerous to people with phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited condition. And, he notes that the FDA recommends that pregnant and lactating women, people with advanced liver disease, and phenylketonurics avoid aspartame.
The FDA admits also, writes Earle, that “aspartic acid has the potential to cause brain damage,” but the FDA limits the danger to very high doses. Earle notes that Dr. Christine Lydon, an aspartame researcher, explains that phenylalanine and aspartic acid are amino acids found naturally in foods, but in foods they are eaten alongside other amino acids. Separated, each enters “the nervous system in abnormally high concentrations, causing aberrant neuronal firing and potential cell death”—which, in turn, is linked to “headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and possibly seizures.”
Earle notes that Dr. Lydon warns that phenylalanine decomposes into diketopiperazine (DKP) a known carcinogen, when exposed to warm temperatures or prolonged storage. At cold temperatures, methanol “spontaneously gives rise to a colorless toxin known as formaldehyde.” Jim Turner’s timeline detailing the history of aspartame’s approval by the FDA notes that aspartame’s unstable nature prompted The National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) to petition the FDA in July 1983 to delay approval “pending further testing because aspartame is very unstable in liquid form” (http://www.swankin-turner.com/hist.html).
Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon Morell, in NOURISHING TRADITIONS (2000), write that “aspartame…is a neurotoxic substance that has been associated with numerous health problems including dizziness, visual impairment, severe muscle aches, numbing of extremities, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, retinal hemorrhaging, seizures and depression. It is suspected of causing birth defects and chemical disruptions of the brain.” And, Enig and Morell report that in 1992 Utah State University researchers reported “that even at low levels aspartame induces adverse changes in the pituitary glands of mice. The pituitary gland is the master gland upon which the proper function of all biochemical processes depend” (51).
Davis notes that the U.S. military, in two publications, “warned that aspartame can cause serious brain problems in pilots” (422). And, Davis points to the flaw in tests that kill and exam rats before they have lived out their natural lifespans—an important factor since cancer can often take decades to develop and killing rats early derails detection of cancer formation. She cites test results in 2001 showing the development of cancer in multiple organs of rats allowed to live out their natural life spans–even though dosages were well under those allowed in America (50 mg daily). Davis notes that one can of diet soda contains 200 mg of aspartame (424-425). She further notes that there is “no evidence at all” that those who use aspartame actually lose weight. Actually, there is “some indication” that aspartame “creates a sugar deficit” which leads “people to seek more sugar from other sources” (423).
Earle reports that as of 1995 over 75 percent of the adverse reactions reported to the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS) of the FDA were due to aspartame. Davis notes that the FDA stopped gathering adverse reaction reports in 1995 (422).
Saccharin, from the Latin for “sugar,” is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Saccharin, Earle notes, was also discovered by accident in 1879 when a Johns Hopkins scientist spilled some and noticed the sweet taste. Saccharin, until 1915, was first used as an antiseptic agent and food preservative. In 1901, John F. Queeny, started the Monsanto corporation, manufactured saccharin, and shipped it to a Georgia company, Coca-Cola.
Saccharin is “the holy grail of the artificial sweetener industry,” writes Earle, because it “is not metabolized by the human body and is excreted rapidly through the urine.” This kind of compound, Earle explains, tastes sweet, is stable in prepackaged foods and beverages, is thought to be “so foreign to the human diet that our digestive systems cannot metabolize them to create any dietary calories,” and is “dirt cheap to produce in bulk.
World War II brought sugar shortages, but cyclamate, discovered in 1937 when a graduate student at the University of Illinois working on anti-fever drugs accidentally tasted it, came to the rescue and was the chemical of choice. Saccharin’s original chemical classification lists it as an O-toluene sulfonamide derivative. Toluene is a colorless liquid hydrocarbon distilled from coal tar, which may, Earle suggests, account for saccharin’s “bitter, metallic aftertaste.” In 1958, Maryin Eisenstadt mixed saccharin with cyclamate and introduced Sweet’n Low, which we have today, without the cyclamate.
Dr. Nathanael J. McKeown, a medical toxologist, writes that “toluene (methylbenzene, toluol, phenylmethane) is an aromatic hydrocarbon (C7 H8) commonly used as an industrial solvent for the manufacturing of paints, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and rubber. …Toluene is found in gasoline, acrylic paints, varnishes, lacquers, paint thinners, adhesives, glues, rubber cement, airplane glue, and shoe polish. At room temperature, toluene is a colorless, sweet smelling, and volatile liquid” whose fumes are highly toxic (“Toluene, Toxicity,” http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/818939-overview). (These fumes, sniffed by some to get high, as with glue, affect the Central Nervous System.)
Saccharin is now, Earle explains, manufactured by a more cost-effective method developed in 1950 that begins with synthetically produced methyl anthranilate. Wikipedia explains that anthranilic acid successively reacts with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and then ammonia to yield saccharin. Another route, Wikipedia continues, begins with o-chlorotoluene.
And, Wikipedia notes that saccharin is also known as ortho sulfobenzoic acid. Earle notes that as saccharin is a sulfonamide, some people have allergic reactions to it. Further, saccharin-sweetened infant formula has produced severe, largely muscle, reactions in some babies.
In 1969, the FDA proposed banning saccharin with cyclamate until its safety was proved, but, Earle notes, significant opposition from a public now concerned with calories saved saccharin. Canada, however, did ban saccharin in 1977 as a carcinogen. The US Congress put a two-year moratorium on any ban, but mandated a cautionary label warning of possible health hazards, including cancer. For the next 26 years, numerous studies (2374) have been performed to prove or disprove saccharin safety until, in 1991, the FDA gave saccharin, as Earle notes, “something of a probationary status,” though the FDA still classifies saccharin as an“anticipated human carcinogen.”
Acesulfame-K, or acesulfame potassium, or 5,6-dimethyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-one-2,2-dioxide, or ACK, was also discovered by a German chemist in 1967 when he licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper. ACK is, Earle writes, 200 times sweeter than sugar and is thought not metabolized by the body so is excreted unchanged in the urine. The FDA approved ACK in 1988 for use in” baked goods, frozen desserts, alcoholic beverages and candies” and, in 1998, for “all other general sweetening purposes.” ACK has been marketed under the brand names Sunett, Sweet One, Swiss Sweet, and Sweet & Safe. Pepsi used it in Pepsi One upon its FDA approval. And, ACK is often blended with aspartame, as it is in Twinsweet.
Earle notes that there is very little information about ACK. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), he writes, concluded that the safety tests were of mediocre quality. And, that “large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits and dogs. ACK, he notes, stimulates insulin secretion which can possibly aggravate hypoglycemia, or low-blood sugar.
Sucralose, or 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-BETA-D-fructofukranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside, was discovered, Earle writes, as a sweetener in 1976 when a grad student misunderstood “testing” for “tasting” and discovered that “many chlorinated sugars are hundreds or thousands of times sweeter than sucrose.” Splenda is the brand we know.
Johnson & Johnson claims sucralose is exceptionally stable and that sucralose passes through the body without being broken down. But, Earle notes, sucralose “has the fewest independent scientific tests to its credit of all non-nutritive sweeteners.” And, “independent reviewers of Johnson & Johnson’s tests have found them to be inadequate and methodologically flawed.”
Earle notes that “several pre-approval tests still indicated potential toxicity.” And, research is now showing some alarming physical reactions, including shrinking of the thymus gland, enlargement of the liver and kidneys, decreased red blood cell count, and decreased fetal body weights. Earle notes that the FDA’s “own research has shown that 11 to 27 percent of sucralose is absorbed in humans.” Japanese tests show that as much as 40 percent of sucralose is absorbed. And, the FDA considers sucralose to be “weakly mutagenic” in some mouse studies.
These effects, Earle notes, are “not fully understood.” But, detractors are pointing to the chlorinated molecules, which are also “used as the basis for pesticides such as DDT” and which “tend to accumulate in body tissues.”
Nor is sucralose stable. Prolonged storage, especially at high temperatures, causes breakdown into chemicals which have not been “specifically tested in terms of safety for human ingestion.”
Neotame is produced by The NutraSweet Company and is known as “superaspartame.” It is synthesized from a base of aspartame and 3,3-dimethylbutyraldehyde. It’s chemical name is N-[N-(3,3-dimethylbutyl)-L-a-aspartyl]-L-phenylalanine 1-methyl ester. It is 8000 times sweeter than sugar. Earle poses that The NutraSweet Company is positioning neotame to replace aspartame whose patent rights expired in the 1990s.
None of these accidentally discovered chemical brews have been shown to be safe for humans. Many may be, in fact, quite dangerous. The pattern of FDA approval fits the pattern Davis establishes in THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR ON CANCER: a profitable but potentially dangerous product appears; industry denies and demonizes science pointing to problems; industry produces flawed studies that obfuscate the safety issues; industry manipulates the legal and political mechanisms meant to protect citizens; industry buys massive advertising to sell the product; and industry achieves a profitable status quo.
Here’s three things you can do. Stop eating these products. Buy local, organic, whole foods and cook them yourself. And recognize that we have to change the values that put profit before people.