Bittersweet Alternative

Hawaii legislature proposes aspartame ban.

By Léo Azambuja

A deadly neurotoxin is poisoning millions of people worldwide, some scientists and health professionals are saying. Aspartame, the world’s most popular sweetener, first made its way into our food supply over 30 years ago, and today it’s found in 6,000 products around the world. Roughly 200 million people worldwide use it daily.

Aspartame, approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, is widely used in products such as sugar-free chewable vitamins, diet sodas, sugar-free yogurts, sugar-free chewing gums and table-top sweeteners. While this powerful artificial sweetener is deeply embedded in the food supply, many question the health threats it may pose.

Molokai resident Artice Swingle saw her sister gradually lose her vision because of changes in the optic nerve. Swingle’s sister suffered from diabetes, but doctors told her that the vision loss was not associated with the disease.

Swingle claims the neurotoxins in aspartame drove here sister to near-blindness. “She drank at least six cans of diet soda a day,” Swingle said.

The overwhelming information over the Internet condemning aspartame has already inspired a David-Goliath battle in New Mexico and Hawaii.

New Mexico legislators attempted to ban aspartame in their state in 2007. Now it is Hawaii’s turn, with House Speaker Calvin Say and Senator Kalani English introducing a similar version of the New Mexico bill in this year’s Hawaii Legislature.

The ambitious bill, HB2680, seeks to ban the use of aspartame in food products sold in Hawaii, including drinks and chewing gum.

Organic farmer and Molokai resident Jade Bruhjell got a hold of the New Mexico bill and brought it to Rep. Mele Carroll, who convinced Say to introduce the bill and has been championing it since.

“It’s very controversial,” Carroll said. “You have doctors who are saying that the concerns are very minor, and you have other doctors saying it’s a problem.”

Molokai resident Kyno Ravello, who made a commitment to healthier eating habits 40 years ago, said the bill will bring awareness to aspartame-related illnesses.

“We were told that the entire world is watching what is going on here,” Ravello said. “We are like grass-roots people against the largest corporations on the planet.”

What is aspartame?

Chemist James Schlater accidentally discovered aspartame in 1965 while working on an ulcer drug. Schlater joined two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and a small amount of methanol. He licked his finger after touching the compound, and realized how sweet it was.

Advocates of aspartame say it is perfectly safe. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are found naturally in protein-containing foods, including meats, grains and dairy products. Both amino-acids are naturally produced by humans. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is found naturally in many foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

However, some scientists and health professionals are singing to a different tune. Although they agree those ingredients occur naturally in many foods, they say that the process in which they are absorbed by the human body differs dramatically, causing diseases they classify as epidemics.

Why the big fuss about aspartame?

The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes methanol as a poison. A well-known neurotoxin, methanol metabolizes to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and causes birth defects.

According to a study published in the spring of 2005 by “The Artificially Sweetened Times (TAST),” although many foods contain methanol, they also carry ethanol, methanol’s antidote, in higher amounts. Aspartame contains no ethanol to counter its methanol content.

Aspartic acid works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Too many neurotransmitters can damage or kill brain cells by over-stimulating them, which causes the brain to mimic symptoms of neurological diseases. TAST states that a significant number of aspartame consumers show a variety of symptoms diagnosed as multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Phenylalanine may be harmful to brain cells. Scientists say aspartame-produced phenylalanine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and create an imbalance in the brain, causing serotonin levels to decrease, and subsequently lead to emotional disorders.

Neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, MD, said studies indicate that high concentrations of phenylalanine accumulate in different areas of the brain. TAST reported that scientific studies concluded that phenylalanine buildup in the brain can cause schizophrenia and increase susceptibility to seizures.

In an alarming statement, Dr. Blaylock said 10 percent of the U.S. population already has subclinical MS, and a diet high in aspartame can convert the benign, subclinical condition into full blown MS.

When aspartame is heated beyond 86 degrees Fahrenheit, diketopiperazine (DKP) is formed as a by-product. The normal temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. DKP has been associated with brain tumors

Dr. H. J. Roberts, MD, who coined the term “aspartame disease,” has been researching diabetes for over 20 years. TAST reported that he found out that numerous diabetics have suffered “serious metabolic, neurologic, ocular, allergic and other complications that could be specifically attributed to using aspartame products.”

Dr. Roberts also said that he noticed the symptoms associated with those problems diminished after patients avoided aspartame, only to restart shortly after resuming consumption of the sweetener.

The Department of Health and Human Services submitted to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995 a list of almost 10,000 complaints and 92 side effects attributed to aspartame consumption. Symptoms like headache, dizziness, mood swings, vomiting, abdominal pains, change in vision, diarrhea, seizures, memory loss, fatigue and neurological problems topped the list. Diet sodas and table-top sweeteners were the biggest culprits, accounting for 60 percent of complaints.

Is aspartame really that bad?

Laura Tarantino, Ph.D., director of the Office of Food Additive Safety in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said that “at this time” the FDA position is that aspartame is safe, based on more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies.

FDA experts say there is no scientific evidence supporting a link between aspartame and any type of cancer. The National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also conducted aspartame studies in mice and found no cancer link.

The FDA warns that aspartame carries a risk for people with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria. For that reason products containing aspartame have to carry a warning in the label, saying that those people should avoid or restrict aspartame use because of their body's difficulty in metabolizing phenylalanine.

The Aspartame Information Center (AIC) sees no dangers, and states in its Web site that pregnant and nursing women can and should consume aspartame. “The variety of foods and beverages sweetened with aspartame can help satisfy a pregnant woman’s taste for sweets without adding extra calories, leaving room for more nutritious foods.”

The AIC refutes allegations that there is a link between aspartame and neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Lupus, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the Epilepsy Institute, the National Parkinson Foundation, the Alzheimer’s Association and the Lupus Foundation of America also have concluded that there is no link between those diseases and aspartame.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority says that anecdotal claims made by “anti-aspartame campaigners” using “junk science” do not seem to be supported by actual evidence, and that the media is doing a “great public disservice” by disseminating them.

Canada’s federal health agency, Health Canada, states that aspartame can be “safely consumed by most healthy individuals.” The agency denies claims that methanol is toxic, dangerous to diabetics and that it is linked to numerous health problems. According to the agency, allegations that aspartame consumption causes brain tumors, seizures or allergic reactions are not supported.

Are there choices?

Ravello said she comes from a place where she is not against anything. “We are for people eating healthy, we are for a healthy community.”

Swingle shares Ravello’s philosophy. “We are for giving our children chewable vitamins that are healthy vitamins, that don’t have any aspartame,” she said.

“They are sliding aspartame in children’s chewables, in pregnancy vitamins,” Swingle said. “At some point we have lost our common sense.”

Ravello suggested that people experiment laying-off diet soda for two weeks. In replacement, she recommended that they drink water instead. “Just try to do a pure liquid intake and see if your symptoms change,” Ravello said. “Take the challenge.”

Some of the alternatives to aspartame include stevia, barley malt, brown rice syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses and agave nectar.

Bittersweet Politics

Carroll said the bill that calls for a ban on aspartame in Hawaii may be seen as “extreme” by some. “However, that’s how you get attention,” she said.

Every year several hundred bills are introduced to the legislature. Only a small percentage of those bills are heard by the committees, and from that only a small percentage makes it to a floor vote.

Last week the Health Committee heard the bill. This week the bill is scheduled to be heard again before a decision is made on whether it will go to a floor vote. “Just the fact that they heard it shows a lot of interest,” Carroll said.

Carroll said it is not easy to pass a bill, but even if the bill doesn’t pass, it will bring awareness to the aspartame discussion.

“We want people to know what aspartame is,” Carroll said, noting that she felt it was necessary to bring the information to the public and promote a discussion on whether Hawaii wants to continue allowing aspartame in the state.

“The important thing is the message and the education you get out of the legislation that we introduced,” Carroll said. “By the time of the end of our process, hopefully it will stir up enough support to see this through.”

“It’s the beauty of our process,” Carroll said.

Even though many legal hurdles must be cleared, Ravello is confident that community involvement has the power to get the bill signed into law.

“We got rid of trans fats, we should be able to get rid of aspartame,” Ravello said.

For more information please contact rep. Carroll at (808) 586-6790, or Sen. English at (808) 587-7225. For updates on the bill, log on to www.capitol.hawaii.gov, click on “Bill Status & Documents,” and type HB2680.

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