A Tale of Two Sweeteners

Aspartame & Stevia by Gail Davis

Imagine, if you will, a pale-green cadaver on a cold, metal table, waiting to be embalmed. A long plastic tube is placed inside the corpse's main aorta which will carry a supply of pungent-smelling formaldehyde into the body's decaying tissues. Thus begins the embalming process. Now, visualize removing the tube for a moment to pour a little bit into your coffee or soft drink. Sound appetizing? Well, this is what you might as well be doing when you use aspartame.

from:SWEET DEATH by Spice Williams

For more than 20 years, a war has been silently waging in this country. The battlefield is the billion dollar artificial sweetener industry. The combatants are the giant agri-chemical industry and its allied forces, the FDA against a handful of small private companies and concerned citizens on the other. The casualties are the 200 million men, women, and children who regularly consume more than 5,000 food products artificially sweetened with saccharin, acesulfame k, and aspartame. They do so because they are diabetic, hypoglycemic, or just concerned about their weight. They unwittingly become victims by consuming artificial sweeteners in everything from chewing gum to soft drinks. Even more disturbing, is the use of aspartame, perhaps the most toxic of these chemicals in children's vitamins like Centrum, Jr., Sunkist Multivitamins, and Bayer's Flintstones and Bugs Bunny Chewables. Aspartame is marketed under the innocuous sounding names Equal and NutraSweet.

The only warning label which appears on the little blue packets of Equal and products containing aspartame concerns phenylketonuria (PKU) a rare disorder which affects about 1 in 15,000 individuals. These individuals lack one of the paired genes that most people possess at birth which controls the metabolism of phenylalanine.

But nowhere on the label is there even the slightest hint that aspartame has caused brain tumors in laboratory animals (although saccharin does carry this warning), or that according to National Cancer Institute data, there has been an alarming increase in the incidence and malignancy of brain tumors in Americans since the introduction of aspartame into our food supply in the early 1980's(1).

Nowhere on the label are consumers warned of the thousands of complaints associated with aspartame that are on file at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control. Reports of 92 different serious side effects include headaches, menstrual irregularities, nausea, dizziness, skin lesions, rashes, hyperactivity, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal disorders, blackouts, numbness, memory loss, blindness, seizures, and suicidal depressions. While reports of these side effects number only in the thousands, the real number of adverse effects associated with aspartame use is estimated to be as high as 700,000. This is because most people don't associate symptoms with aspartame, and even if they did, only a small fraction of patients or doctors actually take the time to report them.

Meanwhile, an all-natural, non-caloric, non-toxic sweetener that is safe for use by both diabetics and hypoglycemics is being kept a secret from the American public. This herbal substance has been used safely for hundreds of years, is in almost half of all sweetened foods consumed in Japan, has been cultivated and studied extensively around the world with no reports of any ill side effects, and has the ability to prevent tooth decay, inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, balance blood sugar levels, heal wounds, and reduce the craving for sweets!

Why is the FDA keeping the world's greatest sweetener a secret from the American public?. Why aren't diabetic, hypoglycemic, and weight-conscious individuals allowed to learn about a truly safe alternative to aspartame and other artificial sweeteners? Let's take a closer look.

What is Aspartame?

Researchers at G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company were looking for an ulcer drug when they accidentally stumbled upon a white, crystalline powder that was 180 times sweeter than sugar. This man made synthetic compound consisted of two isolated amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid chemically bonded by methanol (wood alcohol.) Searle dubbed the new compound aspartame and was relentless in gaining approval for its use as a food additive, despite the dangers.

Phenylalanine breaks down into diketopiperazine, a brain tumor agent.E Rats in original laboratory studies developed astrocytoma brain tumors.E Elevated levels of phenylalanine also cause changes in brain chemistry which may account for brain/mood symptoms such as seizures, mania, and severe depression.(2) Other specific types of reactions which were published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition in 1988 included: extreme irritability, severe anxiety attacks, marked personality changes, recent severe insomnia, and severe aggravation of phobias.(3)

Aspartic acid is a neurotransmitter, one of a class of chemicals manufactured and used by the brain. It is believed by some experts that the aspartic acid in aspartame causes brain lesions by literally exciting brain cells to death.(4) Aspartic acid has caused brain lesions in experimental animals.

In nature, methyl alcohol (or methanol) occurs in combination with ethyl alcohol, its antidote. Only in aspartame, does methyl alcohol appear alone. Once ingested, methanol converts to formaldehyde, which not surprisingly, affects the brain. It is then further converted to formic acid (ant sting poison) which causes metabolic acidosis. Absorption of methanol is hastened when aspartame has broken down, as it does when it is heated, (added to hot beverages or baked goods) or decomposes during prolonged storage. Methyl alcohol is specifically toxic to the optic nerve and has been known to cause blindness.(5)

There are 32 breakdown products from aspartame that we know of. These include: methanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, epinephrine, phenylethylamine, phenypyruvate, phenylactic acid,Ediketopiperazine, aspartylphenylalanine, beta aspartame, tyrosine, L-Dopa, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Approval Over Controversy and Objections

There are very powerful economic forces behind aspartame. Even before aspartame received its final green light from the FDA for use in dry foods in 1981 and in beverages in 1983, scientists objected to its approval. Aspartame was initially granted FDA approval for use in dry foods in 1974, but was later blocked by objections raised by attorney James Turner and John Olney, M.D. Investigators described aspartame safety studies conducted by G.D. Searle between 1967 and 1975 as `shoddy science' and `sloppy tests.' Ninety out of 113 aspartame safety tests showed discrepancies. FDA scientists and outside researchers insisted that more rigorous and reliable testing was needed. Despite these concerns, on July 18, 1981 aspartame was approved for use in dry foods by FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes who, incredibly overruled his own Public Board of Inquiry which recommended that approval be denied. He also ignored the law, Section 409(c)(3) of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 348), which says that a food additive should not be approved if tests are inconclusive (6)

Objections to aspartame's continued use continued. In 1981, John Olney, professor of psychiatry and neuropathology at Washington University, St. Louis cited risks involved with the use of aspartame. Olney, who was instrumental in banning the use of cyclamates, warned that aspartame had brain damaging properties. The American Academy of Pediatrics raised concerns about the effects of phenylalanine on PKU carriers who were unaware that they had the defect. Astonishingly, even the National Soft Drink Association had serious doubts about the safety of aspartame. In 1983, the NSDA filed a 30-page objection to aspartame's use in beverages and then, inexplicably reversed its opposition. Aspartame received approval for use in soft drinks in 1983 and shortly thereafter, Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes left the FDA. He was then hired as a consultant (at the rate of $1,000 per day) with G.D. Searle's public relations firm, Burston Marsteller.(7)

Prompted by mounting safety concerns within the scientific community, Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum called for Senate hearings on NutraSweet. He introduced the Aspartame Safety Act of 1985 on August 1st of that year. The bill called for clinical studies to ascertain the safety of aspartame, a moratorium on the introduction of aspartame into new products until independent testing was complete, labeling of products including the amount of aspartame in each serving and the allowable daily intake, and a warning that aspartame is not intended for infant use. The bill also required the FDA to set up a clinical adverse reaction committee to collect reports of adverse effects and to send written notices to physicians about aspartame. In a March 3, 1986 news release, the Senator stated `we cannot use American's children as guineas pigs to determine the Osafe' level of NutraSweet consumption.' Sadly, the bill that potentially could have stopped an ongoing tragedy, was killed in the Labor and Human Resources Committee, and never reached the Senate floor.

After suffering a $28 million dollar loss in the previous year, G.D. Searle sold out to the chemical company, Monsanto in 1985.(8) Monsanto then created the NutraSweet Company as a subsidiary, separate from G.D. Searle. Over the next decade, aspartame consumption soared and reports of ill side effects increased.

In June of 1996, FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler lifting all restrictions on the use of aspartame and granted it blanket approval, despite the fact that this neurotoxin (mislabeled as a food additive) is in reality, a dangerous drug that changes brain chemistry and interacts with other drugs. He did so without public notification. He also ignored a request by Senator Metzenbaum (then retired) to initiate additional safety testing. Aspartame could now be used as freely as sugar.

Stevia: America's Prohibited Sweetener

Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a perennial shrub native to the Amambay Mountain region of Paraguay. It has been enjoyed by the Guarani Indians for hundreds of years, who use it primarily to sweeten their herbal mat tea . By the 1800's daily consumption of stevia had spread to South American settlers in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. In 1899, Stevia was `rediscovered' by Italian botanist, Moises Santiago Bertoni. This set the stage for the cultivation of stevia, which until that time had only grown in the wild in its native Paraguay.

The first stevia crop was harvested in 1908. Soon plantations began flourishing throughout South America and abroad. Stevia was first brought to the attention of the US Government in 1918 by a US Botanist. In 1921 American Trade Commissioner George S. Brady, aware of stevia's great commercial possibilities, again brought it to the attention of the US Government, this time to the USDA. Brady noted that stevia had a long history of safe use, and was especially ideal for use as a sweetener by diabetics. This news no doubt, alarmed US sugar producers, much in the same way that the sugar industry in Germany had felt threatened when stevia was introduced there in 1913.

In 1931, the French isolated a pure white crystalline extract: stevioside. US government researcher Dr. Hewitt G. Fletcher labeled it `the sweetest natural product yet found.' Curiously, it appears that stevia did not make its emergence onto the US sweetener scene at this time.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the FDA was busy setting the stage for approval of aspartame for mass consumption in the US. But, Japan had already banned or severely restricted its use, as it had with other unsafe food additives. By 1970, the Japanese discovered stevia: the ideal replacement for sugar and its synthetic substitutes.

In the mid-1980's stevia was being used by several US companies as a flavor enhancer in herbal teas. Suddenly, the FDA poised itself for an all out assault on stevia and launched an aggressive campaign to stop its use. Prompted by an anonymous trade complaint, a series of FDA actions against companies using stevia included: embargoes, search and seizures, and ultimately an all out `import alert.' (9) Stevia was not granted GRAS (Generally recognized as safe) status, despite it's long history of safe use and the numerous world wide scientific studies supporting its safety. Instead, it was classified as an `unsafe food additive'. Celestial Seasonings and other companies were forced to stop using stevia.

While stevia was being grown and enjoyed in such countries as China, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Malaysia, and even Germany, it disappeared completely from the US marketplace until 1994. Despite the FDA's opposition, passage of the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act allowed stevia to reenter the US market as a food supplement. Companies which market stevia products are prohibited from making the slightest implication that stevia has sweetening qualities. To do so is to risk stevia being relabeled as an unsafe food additive and to once again be banned entirely from the U.S. market.

To further protect the interests of Monsanto, and to continue the poisoning of the American public, the FDA would ultimately resort to strategies frighteningly reminiscent of tactics practiced in Nazi Germany. Recently, the FDA placed an embargo on shipments of stevia to the small Stevita Company of Arlington, Texas. In a letter to Stevita dated May 19, 1998 the FDA further demanded that Stevita destroy a warehouse full of `cookbooks, literature, and other publications' and promised to be on hand to `witness the destruction' of the offending materials. In a later development, the FDA asked the Stevita Company to recall the more than 6,500 books already in distribution to stores, and private individuals for the purpose of destroying these, as well.

Although the book burning has yet to take place (FDA officials backed off when local media cameras began rolling) and the FDA now denies these allegations, the letter to Stevita is proof that these threats were real. The matter has not gone unnoticed by the local chapter of the ACLU either. The FDA's actions which are in clear violation of the constitutional right to freedom of the press, should be of particular concern to all Americans at a time when free speech is being attacked on several fronts. As evidenced by the recent Oprah Winfrey trial, passage of food disparagement laws in 13 states stifle free speech by threatening legal action against anyone with a disparaging word to say about a U.S. agricultural product.

Sweet Surrender

While the rest of the world freely enjoys an all-natural, non-toxic, non-caloric herbal sweetener that is 180-400 times sweeter than sugar, but without any of sugar's side effects, Americans are being kept in the dark. Even though the FDA acknowledges that it considers stevia `a potent sweetener', U.S. companies are prohibited from implying that stevia has any sweetening properties at all.

The benefits of stevia as a sweetener are unrivaled:

The Fight for a Safe Sweetener

I know that some might question my qualifications or motivation for telling this story. Very simply, both are rooted in my own personal experience with aspartame and stevia. For twelve years, I suffered from chronic migraine headaches, at least four times a week. I was literally addicted to Fiorinal, a prescription drug containing butalbital, caffeine, and aspirin, and the only medication I found effective at alleviating the often unbearable pain. All the while, I had attributed these headaches to a whiplash injury I sustained in an automobile accident around the same time the headaches began occurring more frequently. Several months ago as I started reading about the hazards associated with artificial sweeteners, I decided to quit using all products containing aspartame. Since that day, I have not had one single headache. The transformation from chronic pain to living pain-free has been nothing short of miraculous.

I have also begun to learn about using stevia as a sweetener. Granted, it takes some getting used to. Stevia is so very powerful, that you have to learn to use the smallest amount to achieve a desired sweetness. But the rewards are more than worthwhile. In addition to not having to deal with splitting headaches, I have noticed that my craving for sweets has become significantly diminished. Talk about an easy, painless way to stop overindulging in goodies. (my weakness!) And I have found stevia concentrate to be not only delicious, but an invaluable aid in healing skin abrasions and a wonderfully nourishing skin mask.

Don't wait for the FDA to give stevia its blessing. It may be a long time in coming. I urge you to immediately (if not sooner) empty your kitchen cupboards of all products containing aspartame. Throw out your Equal, Crystal Lite, diet sodas, chewing gum, and don't forget the toothpaste! You not only will become liberated, but a whole lot healthier in the process. And remember these words from Dr. Julian Whitaker: `Frankly, I don't let aspartame into my house--children live there.'(10)


  1. Dr. Julian Whitaker, A Natural Sweetener That's Also Calorie Free, Health & Healing, Vol. 4, No. 12, December, 1994.
  2. Ibid
  3. Aspartame: Is it Safe? an Interview with H.J. Roberts, M.D., Mastering Food Allergies #61, 1990.
  4. Linda Bonvie, Bill Bonvie, and Donna Gates, The Stevia Story, B.E.D. Publications, Atlanta, Georgia, 1997.
  5. Ibid 1.
  6. Steven A. Farber, "Aspartame and the Regulation of Food Additives: A Study of FDA Decision-Making and a Proposal for Change," Master of Science in Technology and Public Policy Thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1989.
  7. Gregory Gordon, "NutraSweet: Questions Swirl," UPI Investigative Report, 10/12/87. Reprinted in US Senate (1987, page 483-510).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid 4.
  10. Ibid 1.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Gail Davis. Article is copyright by Gail Davis. Write for reprint permission.

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