Did aspartame (NutraSweet) cause Gulf War Syndrome?

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Dear Cecil: The attached document, which is floating around the Web, details a number of deadly side effects of aspartame (NutraSweet). One side effect stems from the release of methanol when aspartame is heated to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The paper goes on to suggest this may be the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, since the troops all drank diet drinks that had sat in the desert sun for several days. The paper also says the head of the Food and Drug Administration took a high position in the PR firm used by G. D. Searle, the maker of NutraSweet, soon after the product was approved for use in soft drinks. What’s the scoop? Am I poisoning myself and my kids by buying diet products? Paul Young, via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Now, Paul. Surely you know the Coca-Cola company owns a high-temperature soft-drink testing lab. It’s called Atlanta. The summer mortality rate in Atlanta is alarmingly high. But the problem is more sucking chest wounds than diet pop.

Other claimed dangers of aspartame may not be so farfetched, but it’s hard to tell. Folks have been arguing about the safety of this stuff for more than 20 years. The weight of scientific evidence is that the sweetener is harmless. Nonetheless since its introduction in 1981 thousands of complaints have been filed with federal health authorities from people saying aspartame gives them headaches or worse.

Sure, where there’s smoke maybe there’s fire. The problem is that people tend to blame aspartame for everything. The sweetener has been associated with something like 90 different symptoms, including vision problems, dizziness, drowsiness, abdominal pain, anxiety attacks, depression, confusion, memory loss, ringing in the ears, chest palpitations, personality changes, convulsions, and irritability. It’s also been linked to conditions ranging from brain tumors, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Scientists say real toxins don’t work that way — they produce a specific cluster of symptoms. One chemical can’t possibly be causing all this stuff.

For the most part researchers have been unable to replicate adverse aspartame reactions in the lab. In numerous studies investigators recruited individuals who said aspartame triggered headaches, epileptic seizures, or what have you. Typically they fed half the subjects aspartame and the other half a placebo. In most cases there was no observable difference.

Aspartame opponents are a vocal bunch and include some reputable scientists. But their claims are often dubious. For example, Dr. John Olney, a longtime aspartame foe, recently published a study linking the sweetener to an increase in brain tumors in the U.S. The NutraSweet company promptly rounded up experts to point out an obvious flaw: the incidence of brain tumors had begun to rise before the introduction of aspartame and has been leveling off since. Meanwhile use of the sweetener has increased sharply. You don’t need a Ph.D. to figure out that if there really were a connection the two rates would go up together.

Mary Stoddard, the head of an antiaspartame group called the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, told us she and her daughter suffered a broad range of health problems, some quite serious, that she attributed to the sweetener. Ms. Stoddard is a nice lady, but her belief that aspartame was the cause of her difficulties seems largely a matter of personal conviction. She declined to participate in controlled tests that might have conclusively established a link.

Other claims quickly noted: Aspartame causes reduced cognitive ability and other problems in airplane pilots. Several studies have failed to confirm these effects. Aspartame causes blindness because it produces methanol (wood alcohol) when digested. Aspartame does produce a small quantity of methanol, but research shows that even if someone drinks enormous quantities of diet pop the amount is much less than the minimum toxic dose, even in soft drinks stored above 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Aspartame is especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Experiments suggest any danger is slight, but to be on the safe side pregnant women and babies probably shouldn’t have the stuff.

All the noise may be obscuring some genuine problems. A 1993 study of the effect of aspartame on persons with a history of depression had to be halted because of the severity of the reaction. (For more on this see below.) I did find one study that found a connection between aspartame and headaches, and there are some persuasive anecdotal accounts. Those with phenylketonuria, the inability to metabolize phenylalanine, one of aspartame’s ingredients, should definitely avoid the sweetener. If the stuff is causing a bad reaction, by all means stop using it.

As for the allegation about the FDA commissioner, it’s true that Arthur H. Hayes, who headed the FDA at the time it approved NutraSweet in soft drinks, subsequently became a consultant for Burson-Marsteller, which did public relations work for G. D. Searle. But an investigation by the General Accounting Office conducted at the behest of Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum failed to find any indication of wrongdoing. A separate GAO investigation found no evidence that the aspartame approval procedure had been anything other than legit.

I’m not out to defend aspartame and other diet products. They’re a sorry testimony to the public’s laziness and the willingness of corporate America to pander to it. Most people would be far better off if they gave up diet products and merely ate a balanced diet and exercised.

Which brings me back to you, Paul. It’s one thing to eat diet foods yourself. But why are you feeding them to your kids? If they’re really such lard buckets, turn off the damn TV and send them out to play.

About that study that had to be halted

In 1993 R. G. Walton et al reported that they had been compelled to halt a study of aspartame use by people with a history of depression because two participants suffered severe eye problems while the study was underway. One patient suffered a subconjunctival hemorrhage for the first time in her life while another required emergency surgery for a detached retina. The depressed patients also suffered other less severe symptoms.

The NutraSweet company says too few people participated in the Walton study to permit any conclusions to be drawn. Only 13 people were tested. Eight had a history of depression while a control group of five did not. In addition, one of the eye problems showed up while the subject was taking a placebo (an inactive substance) rather than aspartame.

NutraSweet’s point about small numbers is well taken, and it may be that the eye problems were a coincidence. Nonetheless this is one study I’d want to do over before dismissing the initial result. Then again, I can appreciate that it might be tough to get volunteers.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.