Remember the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes?” Based on a recent incident regarding aspartame, an updated version of that story might end with the emperor suing the kid for telling everyone the truth — that the emperor was naked.
It seems that a British supermarket chain called Asda decided to go wholesome and rid the shelves of all store-brand products containing unhealthy fats and additives. The store publicized the move by placing labels on a healthy line of products announcing, “No hidden nasties — no artificial colours or flavours, no aspartame and no hydrogenated fats.” Benign enough, it would seem — except that a Japanese company that has huge aspartame holdings took umbrage with the implication that aspartame is a “nasty.”
Ajinomoto Sweeteners, which holds a 45 percent share of the European aspartame market, sued Asda on the grounds that calling aspartame “nasty” might contribute to the impression that the sweetener actually is unhealthy. Oh my! An Aginomoto spokesperson explained, “…the words on the packaging…would have been understood to mean that aspartame is an especially harmful or unhealthy, or potentially harmful or unhealthy, sweetener and is one that consumers concerned for their own health would do well to avoid. However, aspartame is made from two amino acids identical to those found in eggs, meat, cheese, fish, cereals, fruit and milk. After consumption, aspartame is broken down in the digestive system into very small quantities of common dietary components, so it brings nothing new to the normal diet. It is therefore absurd that Asda should refer to aspartame as a ‘nasty’.”
Ajinomoto further asserted that given the obesity problem and aspartame’s usefulness as a sugar substitute, it’s “unconscionable that Asda should try to vilify a safe and beneficial food ingredient.” Based on this claim, the case went all the way to the High Court of London, where Ajinomoto accused Asda of perpetrating “malicious falsehoods”. The judge presiding over the case, Mr. Justice Tugendhat, ruled against Ajinomoto on semantic grounds. He said the word “nasty” does not necessarily imply that aspartame is unhealthy and that the message simply gives shoppers the choice if they’re worried about aspartame — and so the “nasty” campaign continues.
Meanwhile, the supermarket execs are delighted. Darren Blackhurst, Asda’s chief merchandising officer, said: “Naturally, this is a sweet victory. We’re in the business of listening to our customers and they’ve told us loud and clear that they don’t want unnecessary, artificial additives in their food.”
At a glance, this seems like a frivolous suit. Hundreds of studies have found that aspartame is indeed nasty — that in fact, adjectives harsher than “nasty” apply. But lawmakers and our regulatory bodies seemingly ignore those studies and instead, rely on research funded by the aspartame industry. For instance, one of the most influential studies, published in the September 2007 issue of the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology, culled 500 previous studies on aspartame dating back 30 years, and concluded that the sweetener is perfectly safe. But guess who funded that well-regarded study? None other than the folks at Ajinomoto. And that study was used as evidence to derail pending legislation to ban aspartame in at least one state (Hawaii).
As I’ve reported before, aspartame has been implicated in over 90 health issues. A 2007 study found that the sweetener causes Lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer in rats, but the FDA concluded that humans don’t consume enough of the stuff for it to have that effect. Makes you wonder how they explain away the fact that aspartame causes at least 75 percent of the food additive related health problems reported to the FDA. Health issues tied to aspartame include tremors, blindness, Hodgkins disease, seizures, insomnia, brain damage, ulcers, mood disorders, and many, many other severe disturbances. In fact, the FDA conducted its own evaluation of aspartame and found evidence that aspartame triggers brain tumors, mammary tumors, pancreatic tumors, ovarian tumors, pituitary adenomas, uterine tumors, and more. (It would seem the FDA is a bit conflicted.) To add insult to injury, a study last year found that artificial sweeteners don’t lead to weight loss at all — in fact, they make you fat by tricking the brain into not recognizing caloric intake and escalating hunger. So what’s the point in using them, given the potential dangers?
As for Ajinomoto’s description of how aspartame is a safe and beneficial food ingredient composed of amino acids identical to those in meat, fish, and fruit — the truth is that once in the digestive tract, aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, and a diketopiperazin. Not quite the safe and beneficial ingredients Ajinomoto describes. As a side note, the amino acid phenylalanine can’t be metabolized by people with certain genetic disorders, and an overload of phenylalanine can cause brain injury even in people without those disorders. In fact, aspartic acid, methanol, formaldehyde, and virtually all the components that aspartame degrades to can, on their own, trigger serious health issues. All in all, to put Ajinomoto’s description of aspartame as a safe and beneficial food ingredient into perspective, it should be noted that aspartame was once considered (before it was approved as a food) by the Department of Defense as a potential biological-warfare neurotoxin.
In its case against the supermarket, Ajinomoto claimed, “This is a UK initiative and a relatively cynical one. It doesn’t reflect concerns at a consumer level — it is just bandwagoning.” But in fact, supermarkets are for-profit enterprises, and they respond to consumer demand. Asda’s decision to pull aspartame came only because consumers don’t want the stuff in food, and sooner or later, industry will need to follow the wisdom of those it supposedly serves.