The Story of How Fake Sugar Got Approved is Scary As Hell

Kristin Wartman Lawless | Tonic | April 19, 2017

It involves Donald Rumfeld.

The common-sense wisdom about the most widespread artificial sweetener on the market, aspartame, is that it's perfectly safe. The substance laces more than 6,000 products and is added to diet versions of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper. It is also sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. It represents a multi-billion-dollar industry. Popular pieces across the internet in recent years have declared that concerns about aspartame are just a bunch of hype. A pediatrician and writer for The New York Times defends aspartame and says he regularly gives it to his kids. Vox dismisses concerns about the sweetener and includes a video about how safe the stuff is.

Kristin Wartman LawlessThese are reputable news outlets. Yet unlike what their headlines suggest (see, among many others: The Evidence Supports Artificial Sweeteners Over Sugar or Sugar-Free Soda is Safe), the scientists I spoke to for this story are not comfortable making such bold statements. They say there truly is no definitive data to show that aspartame is safe. "I certainly would not be saying it is safe," says Robert Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has written extensively on the subject. "We just don't have the data."

There's no question that scare tactics are sometimes used by health alarmists who overstate the case or misstate the science, but the rush to defend a billion-dollar industrial product—that at the very least has proven to have little benefit—is also curious. Before we get to the actual health concerns of aspartame, though, let's take a look at the telling history of its controversial approval by the FDA. Aspartame was discovered at GD Searle, a Chicago drug company, in the 1960s. The FDA first approved it in 1974, but an FDA scientist at the time, Adrian Gross, discovered that there were serious shortcomings in all 15 long-term studies that Searle submitted for review...