The Washington Post & The Daily Record, 1987

Text Version


The Washington Post & The Daily Record, 1987
New fuel for NutraSweet debate

Researchers clash over findings on safety of sugar subsutitute
By SANDY ROVNER-The Washington Post

Daily Record Newspaper Monday June 1, 1987

WASHINGTON—A series of scientific studies in this country and abroad is
stirring new concern among some scientists over the safety of aspartame,
the immensely popular sugar substitute marketed as NutraSweet. But a
spokesman for the company cited the same studies as evidence that the
product is safe. An estimated 4,000 tons of the sweetener, some 200
times sweeter than sugar, is consumed every year, and sales are
estimated now at more than $l billion annually and increasing rapidly.
Last month, at a scientific conference that was closed to the press,
researchers reported that heavy aspartame use appears to increase
migraine headaches and seizures in susceptible individuals, cause
changes in electroencephalogram (EEG) readings and may even be related
to birth defects and retardation. However, Dr. Frank Kotsonis, head of
research for the NutraSweet Co., said he found the studies either
seriously flawed or used to support unwarranted conclusions. And Dr.
Bennett A. Shaywitz, chief of pediatric neurology at Yale University,
said he found the ambience at the conference "similar to past meetings
on the usefulness of the Feingold diet as a cure for hyperactive
children. "There was a fanaticism there that made me very

Shaywitz is conducting a study of aspartame in seizure-prone children
between the ages of 5 and 12 but so far has been unable to demonstrate
any adverse effects from the sweetener.

G D Searle, which manufactures aspartame, and the NutraSweet Co, which
markets it have maintained that the substance’s 1981 Food and Drug
Administration approval came with more safety studies than any product
in history.

Some researchers believe, however, that because the tests were looking
for acute deleterious effects they missed the more subtle effects that
may occur over a long period of time.

Dr. Paul Spiers, a clinical neuropsychologist of the Behavioral
Neurology Unit and the Harvard Medical School’s Comprehensive Epilepsy
Center at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, presented at the meeting some
preliminary evidence that use of aspartame over a period of time might
affect intellectual functioning in normal users. In an interview Spiers
said the findings had been something of an accident. He had been
planning to study the effects of aspartame on individuals who reported
that they had suffered seizures after ingesting aspartame. However, he
was first ethically bound to run the tests on normal control subjects to
confirm their safety. "For that reason," he said, "we went out and
selected people specifically who had a history of using NutraSweet
products and were not aware of it having any adverse effects on them. We
picked normal neurological histories, no history of psychiatric illness
and no physical problem—nothing, in fact, that would suggest that we
would expect to have problems."

The group was given aspartame capsules up to the FDA's maximum allowable
limit—50 milligrams per Kilogram of weight—three times a day for 12
days. Unexpectedly, the researchers began to find "cognitive deficits"
in some of the neuropsychological tests then done on the group. Among
the tests was a sophisticated computer test called "Think Fast," which
requires comparisons, copying and recall of patterns of blocks and
sequences of letters. Spiers describes it as "quite demanding and self-
paced, becoming increasingly difficult. Normally when a test like this
is repeated, subjects tend to improve in their performance as they learn
how the test is done." Nevertheless the subjects on aspartame failed to
improve and some of them frankly showed a reverse pattern where their
performance got worse."

Although he was admittedly dealing with only a few subjects and checking
performances on only a small number of the tests that were
Spiers believes the findings are important A second group of volunteers
who were given a placebo instead of aspartame showed none of the
problems manifested by the aspartame group The computer test and others
measured functioning of the bra1n's frontal lobe, Spiers said,
"simulating what the brain does in everyday life."

"We are wondering whether in fact this substance may be capable of
having a subtle effect on cognitive functioning that people may not
necessarily be aware of. Think of the implications, for example, on an
average college student who starts consuming a liter of this stuff
during examination period, and it may in fact he interfering with his
concentration and attention skills."  Said Spiers; "This kind of neuro-
psychological cognitive examination has never been used to investigate
the effects of new drugs of any kind. Now we have food additives that
are more like drugs than foods are introduced into the dietary chain but
have direct effects on the brain's neurotransmitter system. But because
the chemical industry is 20 years ahead of the regulators, thus far no
one has attempted to apply more sophisticated methods of testing brain
functions to these problems."

NutraSweet's principal ingredient is an amino acid called phenylalanlne
(PHE), which is found, along with other amino acids, in protein. There
is a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) in which the ability
to normally process the amino acid is impaired. Without careful dietary
restriction of protein, PKU babies may suffer severe, irreversible
mental retardation. All products containing NutraSweet must warn against
its use where PKU exists.

Now, however, specialists and researchers believe that there may be many
more people who carry the gene for PKU but show no symptoms who,
however, may be unable to deal with the extra load of PHE that comes
from using products containing NutraSweet.

Dr. Reuben Matalon, a geneticist and pediatrician at the University of
Illinois warned those at the conference that perhaps millions of PKU
carriers are at risk of varying reactions to aspartame, as are the
fetuses of pregnant carriers.

Another major study presented at the conference suggested that the use
of aspartame could increase the frequency of migraine headache fourfold.
However, both Kotsonis and Shaywitz said they believed the study was
poorly conducted. They cited another study done at Duke University, now
awaiting publication that found no link between migraines and
NutraSweet. (Funded by manufacturer.)

Dr. Richard J. Wurtman, neurophysiologist at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and one of the organizers of the conference, called for
more studies of the 3,000 people who have complained of reactions to
NutraSweet. "Except for the migraine study, which is preliminary, at
this point we cannot say aspartame is responsible for all those
anecdotes. Still, given the basic science findings and the anecdotes,"
Wurtman said, "the index of suspicion is high."

Said Spiers: "I think it is in everyone's interest to do good research
on this. It may turn out that it is just a labeling issue, that the
warning needs to be broader. People still smoke, but they smoke knowing
the consequences. The difference here is that people have not understood
the consequences "

"How many people even know that the FDA has attached a limit to
aspartame consumption?" asked James Wagoner. Legislative aide to Sen.
Howard Metzenbaum, (Ohio). Metzenbaum has introduced legislation
requiring that labeling include information about how much NutraSweet is
contained in a serving of a given product. The FDA’s limit of 50
milligrams per kilogram of body weight translates to about four liters
of a diet drink for an adult but only to about three cans for a child
who weighs about 30 pounds.

"Americans,'' Wagoner said at the conference, "drink over 20 billion
cans of diet soft drinks a year. And that doesn't count the gum,
pudding, breakfast cereal, chewable vitamins, tooth paste, juices,
frozen pops - all sweetened. with NutraSweet "

Researchers reported last month that that heavy aspartame use appears to
increase migraine headaches and seizures in susceptible individuals
cause changes in electroencephalogram (EEG) readings and may even be
related to birth defects and retardation.

'We are wondering whether in fact this substance may be capable of
having a subtle effect on cognitive functioning that people may not
necessarily be aware of.

Think of the implications, for example, on an average college student
who starts consuming a liter of this stuff during examination period,
and it may in fact be Interfering with his concentration and attention

Dr. Paul Spiers

Supporting documentation:
(a search on for +spiers+mit+aspartame nets 60+ documents)

AFTER... !
Study reaffirms safety of aspartame

By Deborah Halber News Office

Even daily large doses of the high-intensity sweetener aspartame, also
known as NutraSweet, had no adverse effect on study subjects' health and
well-being, a visiting scientist at MIT reported in the American
of Clinical Nutrition last week.

"We conclude that aspartame is safe for the general population," said
Paul A. Spiers, visiting scientist in the Clinical Research Center

Mood, aggression and selected cognitive functions were tested during a
study in which some of the subjects consumed doses of aspartame nearly
20 times the daily amount taken by the vast majority of the general

During a four-month period, subjects received either aspartame, sugar or
a placebo and underwent physical and psychological testing. Some
subjects were given doses of up to 45 milligrams per kilogram of body
weight--the equivalent of 17 to 24 12-ounce diet beverages for males and
14 to 19 12-ounce drinks for females. In the general population, most
Americans who consume aspartame take in 3 milligrams per kilogram of
body weight a day, the equivalent of one or less 12-ounce diet beverage.

Despite the high consumption of aspartame, the 48 normal subjects showed
no changes in mood, memory, behavior, electroencephalograms (which
record the electrical signals of the brain) or physiology that could be
tied to aspartame, Dr. Spiers found. Although some subjects reported
headaches, fatigue, nausea and acne, the same number of incidences were
reported by subjects taking placebo and sugar as those taking aspartame.

Dr. Spiers noted that these findings corroborate the results of another
recent study with preschool and elementary school children that
discovered no effect on their moods, activity levels, behavior or
thinking after they consumed high doses of aspartame.

He recommended that if a patient reports any adverse effects from a food
product, factors such as the patient's overall diet, nutrition and
behavior should be carefully tested in a double-blind challenge. "Only
in this way can allegations regarding the safety of any food product be
properly evaluated before speculation regarding harmful effects begins,"
wrote Dr. Spiers and co-authors LuAnn Sabounjian of Interneuron
Pharmaceuticals of Lexington; Dr. Allison Reiner of Princeton, NJ; Diane
K. Myers and Judith Wurtman of the CRC; and Donald L. Schomer in the
neurophysiology department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and
Harvard Medical School.

The study was conducted at MIT's CRC. Electro-encephalograms were done
at the Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. This work was
supported by a grant from the NutraSweet Co. to the Center for Brain
Sciences and Metabolism Charitable Trust.

(also at

------------- Contact info:

 Deborah Halber
 MIT News Office
 (617) 258-9276

NOTE:  There is NO valid documentation proving aspartame is either a
reasonable diet aid... OR safe! for much more.