2023 was not a sweet year for the artificial sweetener industry.
In May the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that artificial sweeteners (what it calls non-sugar sweeteners, or NSS) do not “confer any long-term benefit” in weight loss. Even more alarming, the WHO says that using NSS over time may produce “undesirable effects” such as upping the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and increased mortality.
But that wasn’t all.
By July, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the “specialized cancer agency” of the WHO, along with the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, overseen in part by the WHO, determined that aspartame may “possibly” cause cancer in people.
Aspartame now joins 323 other IARC “Group 2B” possible carcinogens, including insecticides, artificial dyes, and fuels such as gasoline. The FDA was quick to issue its knee-jerk response, saying it “disagrees” with IARC, and found many “shortcomings” in the studies used to reach that conclusion. Dr. Francesco Branca, director of Nutrition and Food Safety at the WHO, said, “We have, in a sense, raised a flag here.”
That flag, however, is already tattered and torn. It was raised in 1970 by the late renowned neuroscientist Dr. John Olney at Washington University in St. Louis who discovered that the aspartic acid contained in aspartame produced holes in the brains of baby mice.
Olney’s later-published research identified aspartame as a “promising candidate” to explain the rise in deadly brain tumors. At one time even FDA investigators were shocked at the shoddy and deliberate falsification of the original safety studies conducted by G.D. Searle (the pharmaceutical company that discovered aspartame and managed to maneuver it onto the market). Olney described the incidence of brain tumors in Searle’s studies as “incredible and unprecedented.”
The late James Turner – attorney, consumer advocate, and former chair of Citizens for Health – was a champion in the fight against chemical sweeteners, most notably aspartame. He’s quoted as saying: “The only responsible thing to do is ban the sweetener. And if they refuse to ban it then it should carry heavy warnings… To (turn) loose upon an entire unwarned continent a chemical that destroys the fetus, triggers mental illness and cancer, and sickens millions without a word of warning is corrupt and depraved.”
But, of course, it wasn’t banned or restricted. Since 1983 when aspartame, under the brand name NutraSweet, was approved for widespread use by then-FDA commissioner Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, it has been added to more than 5,000 foods and drinks – and that’s not counting the drugs it’s in. When the U.S. NutraSweet patent expired in December 1992, the chemical aspartame became a household word.
March Out the Influencers
Now, 53 years after Dr. Olney first sounded the alarm about aspartame, we’re hearing another, if somewhat watered-down warning, from the WHO, which is anything but a radical organization. Not taking any chances on how today’s consumers might react to the word “cancer” connected with aspartame, the American Beverage Association (ABA) did what any respectable lobbying group would do these days. It marched out the “influencers.”
No, not the Kardashians or even PewDiePie (who has the most YouTube subscribers on Earth, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). The no-cal beverage hustlers went right to the “health” folks – registered dietitians.
These guys and gals who were paid by the ABA to keep the aspartame safety flag flying gave reassuring messages on TikTok and Instagram not to worry. Trust us, we’re registered dietitians!
Dietary influencer Valerie Agyeman did a special podcast discussing how the “Internet basically turned upside down after 100s of intense, scary, fearmongering headlines came out about aspartame.” She’ll help you by covering the “science” of the matter. It’s “important to be informed and know the facts…” she told her audience.
Nichole Andrews handled her assignment a bit differently. This RD, who specializes in oncology nutrition, presented her sponsored spiel on Instagram about other known carcinogens: “With the new confusing headlines out about aspartame it can feel exhausting that there are always things being added to this list of what increases cancer risk…” While tobacco and processed meats were on her list, not surprisingly, aspartame wasn’t.
Unfortunately for Valerie, Nichole, and all the others the ABA paid to reassure the public that aspartame is safe, amazingly there are still some rules left regarding surreptitious advertising. Since these registered dietitians didn’t make much effort to inform their followers that they were working on behalf of the ABA, they and the lobbying group were sent warning letters last November by the Federal Trade Commission stating that they may have “violated the FTC Act.”
Advised to “review your social media policy,” the ABA was warned by the FTC that continuing to engage in such conduct could result in civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation.
A Gut Punch
More not-so-sweet warnings came out in May when researchers experimenting with sucralose (sold as Splenda and a variety of other brand names) were so alarmed by what they discovered that they stated the sweetener should no longer be consumed by the public.
Researchers Susan Schiffman and Matt Shipman, affiliated with North Carolina State University said in a joint statement issued by the school, “It’s something you should not be eating.”
Their study, published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, found that during digestion, sucralose forms a chemical that can break up DNA. This genotoxic substance, sucralose-6-acetate, is also present in trace amounts in “off-the-shelf sucralose” before consumption. These amounts, although small, were still above the limits considered acceptable for genotoxic substances by the European Food Safety Authority.
“And that’s not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose,” said the researchers.
Additionally, the team found that when exposed to gut wall tissue, both sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate cause “leaky gut” syndrome. “Basically, they make the wall of the gut more permeable,” the pair said, damaging the “tight junctions or interfaces where cells in the gut wall connect to each other.”
“It’s time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose,” said Dr. Schiffman, “because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks.”
Finally, in August, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health revealed that long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners is actually counterproductive by being linked to the packing on and storing of excess amounts of body fat. That includes the dreaded abdominal area fat and fat “within the muscles.”
As researcher Brian Steffen, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said about the team’s findings, these “greater volumes” of body fat were apparent “even after accounting for other factors including how much a person eats or the quality of one’s diet.” The study was published in the International Journal of Obesity.
But then, as Jim Turner wrote in the forward to a book I co-authored in 2020, A Consumer’s Guide to Toxic Food Additives: “…the food additive/chemical/pharmaceutical industries are working tirelessly on a daily basis to block every effort to help consumers make the wisest choices for their families and their communities.”
Add to that PR firms, lobbyists, such as the ABA, and a stable of influencers for hire, who will be only too happy to help companies tell the “story” of their suspect products any way they want it spun.