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Does Aspartame Cause Tumors and Pose Cancer Risks? The Jury Is Still Out

Aspartame is consumed by over 200 million people in more than 6,000 products -- but how many of us are aware of the health risks?

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Once the deeply politically connected Rumsfeld arrived, those defenses crumbled. Further aspartame studies, reevaluations and influence-peddling quickly took hold. By the time Rumsfeld left Searle in 1985, he had already shaken Saddam Hussein's hand, sold off the downsized Searle to agri-biz titan Monsanto (netting a cool $12 million in the process), and cleared the way for FDA approval of aspartame use in carbonated drinks.

That clearance, according to some aspartame theorists, could have led directly to Gulf War syndrome. The theory claims that soldiers drinking diet sodas in the desert heat were really ingesting methanol, which is purportedly released whenever aspartame is heated over 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Ergo, Gulf warriors baking in a 120-degree climate near palettes of cans containing the sweet stuff had no chance. They also note that there are nearly direct symmetries of serious side effects from aspartame test subjects and sufferers of Gulf War Syndrome. And then there is, always, Donald Rumsfeld, a sparkly data point on the matrix of aspartame and all things having to do with wars in Middle East deserts.

Mission accomplished. Right? Wrong. There are simply no smoking guns to be had. Yet.

"Bottom line," Jacobson concluded, "is that there are safety questions about aspartame, and it would be worth minimizing children's consumption of that additive."

Good luck with that. The average American swallows approximately 22 teaspoons of extra sugar daily, the American Heart Association warned in August 2009, while the maximum should be six for women and nine for men. And although the Calorie Control Council argues that one benefit of artificial sweeteners like aspartame is that they make great stand-ins for sugar for those suffering from diabetes and obesity, Purdue University's Ingestive Research Center says the opposite is true. Recent data from its studies "indicate that consuming a food sweetened with no-calorie saccharin can lead to greater body-weight gain and adiposity [fat] than would consuming the same food sweetened with a higher-calorie sugar," its scientists explained in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience. The reasons are simple: Artificial sweeteners are, well, artificial. They excite the taste buds, but don't sate them, creating a hunger for more calories where there should be satisfaction with less. The result? Instant appetite, as well as possible triggers for increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

But the science of aspartame, like its politics, are far from finished.

"We would not speculate on why some consider the approval to be controversial," FDA spokesperson Michael L. Herndon said to AlterNet. "Aspartame has been very well studied. Extensive toxicological and pharmacological studies were done in laboratory animals using far greater doses of aspartame than people could possibly consume. The safety of aspartame has been reviewed repeatedly, not only by the United States, but by other authorities, such as Canadian, United Kingdom, Australian and Japanese regulatory authorities, European Scientific Committee for Foods, European Food Safety Authority, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association."

"The overwhelming body of scientific evidence on aspartame is conclusive: aspartame is safe," added Calorie Control Council spokesperson Beth Hubrich. "It has been reviewed time and time again by regulatory bodies worldwide with the same conclusion: aspartame is safe."

Hubrich's probable exasperation on the issue is echoed by Jacobson, with a caveat. "The Internet is loaded with outrageously exaggerated claims about the dangers of aspartame," he said. "What the controversy deserves is careful new studies, ideally conducted by the federal government, to get to the bottom of the issue."

More science could go a long way toward annihilating the aspartame controversy once and for all. But it probably won't, unless it can maneuver around the potential obesity threat of both sugary and diet sodas, candies and other treats that trick us into lives of compromised health. Sweetening the pot are the hard numbers: The artificial sweetener market is annually valued at well over a couple billion dollars. That fact was at the heart of the recent court battle between the old-school titan aspartame (Equal) and the delicious newcomer sucralose (Splenda) for primacy in the market.

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