Aspartame and GMOs: What You Really Need to Know About the Science and Health Risks
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In response to a plunge in sales of artificially sweetened sodas last week, Coca-Cola announced plans to roll out an ad campaign to win back popular favor for its aspartame-containing beverage, Diet Coke. (Diet Pepsi, which also contained aspartame, saw its sales fall 6.2 percent in 2012 while regular Pepsi sales fell little more than half that amount.)
The safety of aspartame, which the FDA approved for human consumption in 1981, has long been in dispute, before, during, and after its approval by the FDA. The simmering controversy is notable for the parallels between aspartame’s safety and regulatory history, and that of another controversial industrial food product – genetically modified foods also known as GMOs.
Aspartame, developed by Searle, was approved for public consumption despite the strong concerns of FDA scientists, who were over-ruled by Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr. then the newly appointed FDA Chief—handpicked by Donald Rumsfeld, the former CEO of Searle, and the Secretary of Defense in two Republican administrations. Hayes pushed through the approval, and then returned to the same industry (at Searle’s public relations firm.) Upon aspartame’s approval, Searle gained two things:
The ability to market and profit from this product (sold as NutraSweet or Equal)
The upper hand in science
Since then, industry sponsored science has sustained the FDA decision, opposing both independent scientific findings, as well as citizen reports of adverse reactions. After a profitable three decades, first for Searle, soon thereafter for Monsanto, which bought Searle in 1985, the vestiges of the former company are now owned by Pfizer. But public confidence in aspartame has steadily eroded. Coca-Cola’s ad campaign seeks to restore that confidence.
Following a similar pattern, the 1992 FDA declaration that GMO seeds and plants were “substantially equivalent” to regular seeds and plants, also occurred despite the concerns of FDA scientists, who were over-ruled by a policy maker (Michael R. Taylor) who came in to the FDA (as Deputy Commissioner of Policy) from industry (Monsanto’s law firm), got GMOs approved, and then returned to the same industry (serving as a Monsanto Vice President for Public Policy.) Note: Taylor is currently Commissioner for Food at the FDA. This time the Searle/Monsanto playbook gave Monsanto three things:
The ability to develop, market, and profit from its products
The upper hand in science, AND
The right to patent its seeds and products and to protect its patents.
With many open questions about the long-range health and environment impacts of GMOs, today over twenty years after FDA approval, public discomfort with GMOs continues to rise. According to a recent New York Times poll, ninety-three percent want GMO foods to be labeled. While industry science supports use, other evidence (and many more concerns not addressed by industry science) continue to emerge. Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide, integral to GMO agriculture, increases the proliferation of breast cancer, even at exposures at low concentrations of parts per trillion, 2013 research found. Glyphosate decreases the body’s ability to detoxify from other toxic exposures, thus increasing the potential for diseases arising from other toxic chemicals, a second study found.
According to Dr. Charles Benbrook, a Washington State University professor and researcher, GMO agriculture’s dramatic increases in the use of fungicides and pesticides (principally Roundup) could outstrip earlier scientific projections of safe exposure levels. Based on current use and exposure rates, risk assessment faces a multiplex of
testing challenges arising from the likely presence of multiple transgenes, DNA fragments, promoters, regulatory sequences and chemicals from pesticides (active ingredients, metabolites, surfactants, adjuvants...