April 20, 1999
BY BOB CONDOR
In the past month, more than a few people have been calling or writing about an E-mail message they received about aspartame, the artificial sweetener better known as NutraSweet.
One editor handed off a printed copy from "a friend of a friend." This version was structured as a "memo," though the E-mail itself is clearly written as a form letter with excerpts from an "article written by Nancy Markle" that provides little context.
The memo refers to the World Environmental Conference, without specifying a date or place for the event. Two physicians are referenced not by medical affiliation or location but an 800 number you can call to order their books.
The material actually dates back to a similar electronic message first written in 1995 by Betty Martini, who apparently lectured at the mysterious World Environmental Conference.
Martini's letter essentially links aspartame to Alzheimer's disease, birth defects, multiple sclerosis, lupus, diabetes, fibromyalgia, Gulf War syndrome, seizures and brain cancer. Not a single research study is offered.
Supporting arguments, but still no studies, can be found on the http://www.aspartamekills.com site. The name alone tells you something.
G.D. Searle of Skokie, Ill., and its parent company, Monsanto, makers of NutraSweet, are vilified for marketing "poison." Not surprisingly, Searle has issued rebuttals at the http://www.nutrasweet.com site, linking to similar denials from the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and American Diabetes Association. Even though aspartame has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the debate rightfully continues -- but deciding whether the substance is safe or unsafe is missing the critical point about your family's health.
For example, one contested issue is the methanol found in aspartame. Methanol is commonly known as wood alcohol. Opponents say it can be toxic. Searle replies that methanol is widely found in fruits, vegetables and other plant (read: woody) foods. In fact, there's apparently four times the amount of methanol in tomato juice as in aspartame-sweetened diet soda. A 12-ounce diet cola has less methanol than an 8-ounce serving of grape juice, though neither has very much.
The typical American consumes 17 pounds of aspartame each year in the form of diet sodas, low-calorie desserts, sugar-free candies, "light" yogurt and more. The guess here is that a certain segment of the population -- you know who you are -- raises the average for others who have sworn off diet sodas for the superior choice of plain water.
There are no positive health benefits of diet sodas comparable to, say, the lycopene from tomato juice or flavonoids in grape juice (also available in red wine). At best, you are getting nothing, which isn't the ideal food choice for a growing child or pregnant woman.
Reports of symptoms and illness are strictly anecdotal -- and all too alarmist -- but just where is the upside of processed diet foods and drinks? Apparently not in curbing appetite or losing pounds.
Most weight-control doctors and nutritionists contend a bigger health concern of diet soda and other sugar-free foods with aspartame is a false sense of doing something positive. Switching to diet sodas in an effort to save hundreds of calories per day that weren't beneficial in the first place gives a person permission to eat high-fat or high-sugar foods.
For most of us, the more responsible message is to seek out more honest foods and fewer pretenders.
And cut back on the E-mails from friends of friends.
BOB CONDOR writes on health issues for the Chicago Tribune. Write to
him at: 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.