On June 27th I reviewed a film called “Our Daily Poison” that persuaded me to stop drinking Diet Coke. It seems that aspartame, the artificial sweetener that was invented by G.D. Searle, a company that was purchased by Monsanto in 1985, was not very good for you. Among the companies that sell products based on aspartame, NutraSweet is probably the best known. It is used in Diet Coke and is ubiquitous as a sugar substitute for use in coffee in restaurants everywhere. My review cited a Huffington Post article that explained how aspartame dodged the FDA regulations:
Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.
I wasn’t that happy about switching back to regular Coke but it was hard for me to break with a habit of drinking this crappy soft drink going back sixty years or so. Maybe there was still something going on in this rather addictive product dating back to its origins as I pointed out about 15 years ago:
One of the most notable attempts to use cocaine in this way led directly to the formation of the Coca-Cola company, which to this day uses non-intoxicating residues of the coca leaf for flavor. John Smith Pemberton, the Civil War veteran and morphine addict who invented the drink in Atlanta in 1886, thought that the soft drink was the answer for old-fashioned American malaise, as well as being a good substitute for opium addiction, including his own. It was also intended to be a substitute for alcohol, which was under attack from the temperance movement. As his hometown Atlanta was threatening to soon go dry, he saw the need for a soft drink that might prove as a substitute for beer, wine and whiskey. His solution, a fruit flavored sugar syrup that combined the caffeine kick of the kola nut and the narcotic buzz of the coca leaf, was initially designed to be mixed with plain water. Only when it was diluted with seltzer did it become the monstrously successful drink that eventually dominated world markets. It can also be used to remove rust from automobile radiators reputedly.
But now I have a medical professional telling me to switch back to Nutrasweet just one month after I cut it out. It is sugar that is bad for me, not aspartame or even saccharine for that matter, says Aaron E. Carroll who is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine that blogs at The Incidental Economist. Directing his comments to parents who are concerned about their children’s addiction to soft drinks, he advises them to go artificial:
A 1998 randomized controlled trial could detect no neuropsychologic, neurophysiologic or behavioral effects caused by aspartame. Even a dose at 10 times the normal consumption had no effect on children with attention deficit disorder. A safety review from 2007, published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, found that aspartame had been studied extensively and that the evidence showed that it was safe.
Since I have a long-standing tendency to double-check everything I read, I wanted to find out more about that safety review from 2007, whose principal author is one Bernadene Magnuson, a reviewer paid by the aspartame industry according to Wikipedia. In a letter to the journal that published Magnuson’s article, Morando Soffritti, a member of the Ramazzini Institute that focuses on food safety, offered this rebuttal:
Magnuson and Williams’s letter is substantially a repetition of the arguments set forth in a recent article (Magnuson et al. 2007), which was a “safety evaluation” sponsored entirely by Ajinomoto, the manufacturer of aspartame. Their article (Magnuson et al. 2007) and this letter contain numerous erroneous statements about the long-term carcinogenesis studies on aspartame conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF).
First, Magnuson and Williams imply that our findings (Soffritti et al. 2007) should be discounted because the incidence of lymphomas/leukemias in the high-dose group “were within or near the reported historical control ranges.” As reported in our study (Soffritti et al. 2007), the incidence of lymphomas/leukemias observed in both sexes treated with 2,000 ppm aspartame is nearly double the concurrent control (Soffritti et al. 2007). The suggestion that concurrent control data should be ignored is contrary to the widely accepted standard of good laboratory science.
Second, Magnuson and Williams attribute our findings (Soffritti et al. 2007) to some kind of bias (i.e., infection) that would affect only treated animals but not the controls. We have responded in detail to this hypothesis in our article (Soffritti et al. 2007) and in an earlier letter (Soffritti 2006). To support their assertion, Magnuson and Williams mislead readers by stating that “the lung was often the site of lymphoma again in this [second] study.” However, we actually reported that
we observed the diffusion of neoplastic tissue not only in the lung but also concurrently in various organs (liver, spleen, mediastinal and other lymph nodes). (Soffritti et al. 2007)
As it turns out, Magnuson took the tack that many scientists paid for by the tobacco companies took in the 1950s and early 60s when studies concluded that cigarettes caused cancer. As is so often the case, it is almost impossible to establish a direct link between smoking or drinking aspartame-laced soft drinks and cancer because the exact biochemistry of cancer has not been established. When a hired hand of R.J. Reynolds or Nutrasweet claims that there might be some other explanation for someone getting lymphoma, capitalist politicians are inclined to give the corporation the benefit of the doubt, especially in a period when deregulation is the name of the game.
If you are inclined to give scientists the benefit of the doubt, regardless of who funds them, it is worth considering the “Survey Of Aspartame Studies: Correlation Of Outcome And Funding Sources” conducted by Ralph G. Walton, M.D., who is the Chairman of The Center for Behavioral Medicine Forum at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. He observed:
Studies of aspartame in the peer reviewed medical literature were surveyed for funding source and study outcome. Of the 166 studies felt to have relevance for questions of human safety, 74 had Nutrasweet® industry related funding and 92 were independently funded. One hundred percent of the industry funded research attested to aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research identified a problem. A bibliography supplied by the Nutrasweet® Company included many studies of questionable validity and relevance, with multiple instances of the same study being cited up to 6 times. Questions are raised both about aspartame’s safety and the broader issue of the appropriateness of industry sponsorship of medical research.
Well, maybe it is just a coincidence but something tells me that there was the same kind of crap going on that I discussed in my article on “Merchants of Doubt”. You know, he who pays the piper gets to call the tune.
I also wonder about the timing of Dr. Carroll’s article. Just three days before it appeared in the NY Times, there was news about the sugar manufacturers going bat-shit because of the FDA’s new rules. NPR reported:
Sixty-five grams of added sugar. That’s how much you’ll find in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
But can you picture 65 grams? It’s about 16 teaspoons worth of the sweet stuff.
The Food and Drug Administration wants to make it easier for Americans to track how much added sugars we’re getting in the foods and beverages we choose.
So, in addition to a proposed requirement to list amounts of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panels, the FDA is now proposing that companies declare a daily percent value, too.
What this means is that, instead of just listing the 65 grams of added sugar in that Coke, soda companies would be required to list that it represents 130 percent of the recommended daily intake. In other words, that one bottle contains more added sugar than you should be eating in an entire day.
Just on a hunch, I Googled Aaron E. Carroll and “GMO” since he seemed to be the kind of guy who would give it his blessing. Sure enough, this Youtube clip on his website is an unabashed defense of GMO with some very minor quibbles:
I was particularly intrigued by his reference to his citation of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) statement that GMO’s were safe, perhaps as safe as Nutrasweet come to think of it. As it happens, the director of the IOM is one Victor Dzau, who is also the Chancellor for Health Affairs at Duke University and President and CEO of the Duke University Medical Center. Now how can you not trust the word of a prestigious think-tank that picks someone like that to run it? Well, there’s one guy out there who has connected the dotted lines between big Pharma and the madcap deregulations over past decades:
In 2010, a group of Duke students protested the hefty compensation being given to some Duke officials, Dzau included. He received more than $2.2 million in total compensation from Duke in 2009, an amount some felt was excessive especially when financial difficulties were being reported at the University. However, that figure is nothing compared to the compensation Dzau is receiving from his corporate connections outside of Duke. As reported by Forbes,8 Dzau served on several corporate boards in 2009, including:
–Alnylam Pharmaceuticals: Dzau received more than $234,000 in compensation in 2009, along with owning more than $424,000 worth of company shares
–Genzyme (a biotechnology company now owned by Sanofi): Dzau received nearly $413,000 in compensation plus owned shares worth more than $5.3 million
–Medtronic (a medical devices company): Dzau received nearly $174,000 in compensation plus owned shares worth nearly $494,000
–PepsiCo: Dzau received $260,000 in compensation and owned shares worth more than $1.6 million
In case you lost count, this amounts to more than $1 million in compensation from serving as a director for these companies, in addition to stock valued at more than $7.8 million… and that’s in addition to the $2.2 million from Duke. And, remember, these are 2009 figures. Today, it’s estimated that Dzau owns:9
–90,000 shares of stock in Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, worth more than $8 million
–More than 25,000 shares of Medtronic stock, worth more than $1.4 million
–More than 36,000 shares of PepsiCo stock, worth more than $2.8 million
How Can IOM Provide Unbiased National Health Advice with Corporate-Backed Leaders?
The issue here, of course, isn’t how much money Dzau has… it’s how a person with such extensive corporate board memberships can realistically uphold the IOM promise of providing unbiased health information. As reported by Health Care Renewal:
“Even though Dr. Dzau will apparently exit his board memberships before he becomes IOM President, the IOM has been providing such analysis and recommendations under the supervision of a Council member who had fiduciary duties to the stockholders of two pharmaceutical companies, a medical device company, and a company that makes sugar-laden soft drinks and snack foods. It will continue to provide such analysis and recommendations under the supervision of a President who became a multimillionaire by virtue of the stock holdings he acquired through his board positions.”