People love to hate artificial sweeteners. Starting with saccharin in the late 1950s, some have enthusiastically embraced the idea of sweets without calories. Others have warned that saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame are too dangerous for human consumption.

The debate is often intensely emotional. Cyclamate was removed from the market in 1969 when animal studies showed an excess of tumors in rats exposed to the sweetener. This decision remained controversial for the next 20 years, but the FDA did not reverse itself.

The FDA proposed pulling saccharin off the market in the mid 1970s, also on the suspicion that it might cause cancer. The agency let those plans drop due to public outcry and Congressional outrage.

The most popular non-caloric sweetener for the past few decades has been aspartame. This artificial sweetener was introduced with great fanfare in 1981 as one of the safest alternatives to sugar ever created. The FDA announced when it approved aspartame, “Few compounds have withstood such detailed testing and repeated, close scrutiny, and the process through which aspartame has gone should provide the public with additional confidence of its safety.”

That’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Over the years, though, frightening tales of aspartame toxicity have circulated on the Internet.

One reader wrote: “I know from first-hand experience that there are very serious problems with aspartame. In 1996 I was diagnosed with epilepsy. At that time I was trying to lose weight and eating a lot of products with aspartame.

“I became suspicious and stopped eating aspartame-laced products. Even though my neurologist was skeptical, I was able to discontinue my seizure medicine and have not had further seizures.

Others have blamed aspartame for a wide variety of health problems including headaches, dizziness, confusion, memory loss, depression, blindness, ADD, ALS, lupus and multiple sclerosis.

With dozens of symptoms attributed to aspartame, it is easy to discount the diatribes. We were skeptical about the more exaggerated claims, especially regarding links to cancer.

Recent research by a European Foundation has forced us to look at aspartame in a new light, however. A study published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (Nov. 17, 2005) involved 1800 rats and 6 dosage levels of aspartame in their chow. Some of the dosage levels were comparable to levels of aspartame in the human diet.

The rats in this study were not sacrificed but lived out their natural lives and were examined upon death. The authors report an excess of leukemias, lymphomas and malignant tumors among rats fed aspartame at several dosage levels.

Critics charge that the researchers did not follow standard protocols for this type of study. The investigators respond, “the findings speak for themselves.

If you would like more details, we did an in-depth interview about this research on our national radio show. The CD is available for $9 from the People’s Pharmacy (CD-568), P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027 or order it online at

The FDA and the industry trade organization, the Calorie Control Council, maintain that aspartame is totally safe. Despite their reassurances, this new research may prompt a re-evaluation of this popular sweetener.

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