The manufacturer of aspartame, a sugar substitute trademarked as NutraSweet, has funded three extensive studies designed to satisfy any lingering doubts about the chemical compound's safety.
The projects are under way at Yale and Duke universities, in addition to the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. The work focuses on whether any links exist between aspartame ingestion and the onset of headaches or seizures, according to Dr. Robert H. Moser, medical affairs vice president for the NutraSweet Co. in Skokie, Ill.
"We made these research grants in order to lay (any doubts) to rest," Moser said in a recent interview. "Anecdotes (about negative reactions to NutraSweet) have caused public unease after being reported in the media. So, we want to demonstrate that NutraSweet will run into the ground any allegations that something is wrong with the product."
The research is continuing despite the fact that federal officials gave the artificial sweetener a clean bill of health as recently as November, 1986. The government's endorsement was followed by word that the number of food products in which the substance could be used as an ingredient was being expanded.
The company's estimates show that more than 100 million Americans are consuming aspartame on a regular basis. The number is likely to increase now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded the use of NutraSweet to include refrigerated juices, frozen desserts on a stick, ready-to-drink teas and breath mints.
Aspartame was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1981 for use as a table-top sweetener, trademarked as Equal, and in a restricted number of processed foods. The sugar substitute was approved for carbonated beverages in 1983, and it has found widespread acceptance in the diet soft-drink market. Annual sales of the sweetener soared to more than $719 million by 1985, and last year's figures are projected as being substantially higher.
Proponents of NutraSweet have often called the substance the most scrutinized additive ever allowed into the nation's food supply. However, reports that ingestion of the sweetener causes side effects have continued to surface.
Several weeks ago, the FDA rejected a consumer group's petition that had called on the agency to ban the sugar substitute until public hearings could be scheduled to review complaints about the compound.
The petition, authored by the Washington-based Community Nutrition Institute, maintained that aspartame remains a potential health hazard based, in part, on a study that appeared to show that the substance inhibited sight development in laboratory animals.
3,000 Reports of Problems
Moser acknowledged that more than 3,000 reports of adverse reactions to the sugar substitute had been received by the FDA. But the agency reviewed the incidents and determined that there is no general problem regarding aspartame, which is made from two protein components. The FDA did state, however, that a small percentage of the population may be hypersensitive to the sweetener, as is the case with numerous natural and artificial ingredients.
Moser noted that there are about 1.2 million epileptics in the United States and that erroneous conclusions can be drawn if one of these individuals suffers a seizure hours after using the sugar substitute.
"There is bound to be a connection when someone has a seizure on the same day that they consumed aspartame," Moser said, maintaining that such reactions are not related to NutraSweet.
Even so, two of the current studies focus on whether aspartame can trigger attacks. At Yale, researchers are looking into whether the sweetener induces seizures in children, whereas the Mt. Sinai effort concentrates on adults similarly susceptible. (The Duke University survey looks into the question of headaches.)
"Is there a big dragon around the next mountain (of aspartame research)? The answer is, 'No,' " Moser said.
Part of the problem NutraSweet officials have in soothing consumer doubts about the sweetener can be attributed to the public's overall skepticism, Moser claims.
Distrust of Authority
"There is a general distrust of authority, the Establishment, science and scientists," he said. "We have fallen victim to a part of that situation."
Beyond the safety issue, the company's researchers are still trying to solve the problem of aspartame breaking down into several chemicals, including methanol, at high temperatures. The compound also disintegrates after lengthy storage.
At one point, critics claimed a health risk existed because of aspartame's potential dissolution into methanol, a naturally occurring chemical that can prove toxic in large doses.
Moser said that the methanol levels in question are trace amounts and, thus, do not pose a safety problem. For example, the methanol that would be present in a can of Diet Coke, if the aspartame used to sweeten the soda dissolved, would be one-third of that normally present in a six-ounce can of tomato juice.