By Jack Schatz
Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), Chair of the California Assembly Committee on Health, conducted an informational legislative hearing concerning the use of deceptive advertising to promote sales of potentially unhealthy food additives, including artificial sweeteners.
“Given the wide-spread interest is this issue, it is important that the Assembly Committee on Health examined whether Proposition 65 should apply to artificial sweeteners, since some contain chemicals like chlorine which can be extremely toxic. It is critical that the Committee examine whether products containing these potentially hazardous chemicals should be identified by a label so consumers can make more informed decisions before using these products,” said Dymally.
The hearing, held on October 3 in the State Capitol in Sacramento, was attended by scientists, members of trade organizations and consumer advocates with distinctly different views concerning the safety of artificial sweeteners.
The Committee heard testimony from George Alexeeff, Ph.D., Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) about the agency’s review of artificial sweeteners.
Representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest also testified regarding what the organization characterized as “the FDA’s failure to properly examine the adverse health consequences of using false advertising to promote artificial sweeteners.”
The authors of a recently published study at Duke University on the health side effects of sucralose also testified.
Committee members questioned Dr. Alexeeff about how OEHHA screens and lists candidate chemicals under Proposition 65. Alexeeff was first asked which chemicals merit a Proposition 65 review.
Alexeeff told the committee that OEHHA follows a prioritization process in which chemicals are screened on the basis of three criteria: Are there animal studies that show carcinogenicity or reproductive or developmental toxicity? Are there human studies that show carcinogenicity or developmental or reproductive toxicity? and Are Californians exposed to them?
Chemicals that meet the three criteria are submitted to one of our committees of experts (the Carcinogen Identification Committee and the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee), Alexeeff said. The committee then considers the evidence and recommends whether to request that OEHHA prepare hazard identification materials on each chemical. OEHHA staff would prepare the hazard materials and present them to the committee at a future meeting where the materials would be considered in deciding whether to list a chemical.
Four artificial sweeteners are currently approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): saccharin (and its salts), aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, and sucralose.
When asked by committee members which sweeteners have been reviewed by OEHHA, Dr. Alexeeff said the agency has investigated saccharin and aspartame.
Dr. Alexeeff told the Committee that saccharin was listed as a Proposition 65 carcinogen in 1989 and de-listed in 2001 after the National Toxicology Program reversed its classification of the sweetener as a likely carcinogen. Sodium saccharin was listed as a Proposition 65 carcinogen in 1988 and de-listed in 2003.
“Aspartame is the only other approved artificial sweetener that we are tracking for possible carcinogenicity,” Alexeeff said.
According to Alexeeff, OEHHA completed a final cancer data summary for aspartame in March 2004. Since this summary was completed, two additional sets of animal bioassays that report cancer findings have been published in the scientific literature.
One of the artificial sweeteners examined by the Committee is sucralose, better known by its trade name Splenda. Sucralose starts as pure cane sugar but is chemically altered to create a compound that contains no calories and no sugar, according to McNeil Nutritionals, the manufacturer of Splenda. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar by weight, and is currently used in over 4,000 food products.
Sucralose has been the subject of considerable controversy concerning its potential toxicity and what critics have called sleight-of-hand marketing. A recent study by scientists at Duke University, funded by the Sugar Association (a trade association representing sugar beet and sugar cane farmers), and published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, asserts that Splenda (which contains sucralose and the fillers maltodextrin and glucose) contributed to increased body weight, destroyed beneficial intestinal bacteria, and possibly reduced bioavailability of drugs and chemicals, at doses of sucralose that are approved by FDA. The study authors have said the Sugar Association had no input on the study’s findings and conclusions.
According to the Sugar Association’s website, www.truthaboutsplenda.com, many consumers have also complained of a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms, migraines, seizures, dizziness and blurred vision, allergic reactions, blood sugar increases and weight gain, and numerous other problems associated with consumption of Splenda.
Both the Sugar Association and Merisant, the maker of Equal, had filed lawsuits against McNeil Nutritionals alleging misleading advertising. McNeil Nutritionals and Merisant reached an undisclosed settlement in May 2007. McNeil Nutritionals had also filed a lawsuit against the Sugar Association, alleging false and misleading claims about Splenda.
Specifically, the suit alleged that Splenda’s advertising said that it was created from cane sugar, but did not mention that it is chemically altered with chlorine, by adding three chlorine atoms in place of the naturally occurring hydrogen-oxygen groups in the sucrose molecule.
Despite the steady barrage of Splenda bashing by the Sugar Association, aspartame remains the only sweetener on the market that is currently under investigation by OEHHA as a potential carcinogen.
Aspartame, commonly marketed as Nutrasweet or Equal, is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. It was first approved by FDA in 1981, with additional product use approvals through 1996, when FDA approved it for general use. According to the Calorie Control Council (CCC), a nonprofit trade association of companies that use or make low calorie ingredients, aspartame is unique among low-calorie sweeteners in that it is completely broken down by the body. Aspartame cannot be consumed by individuals with phenylketonuria because they are unable to metabolize phenylalanine, a byproduct of aspartame metabolism. Aspartame is an ingredient in more than 6,000 products, including soft drinks, drink mixes, gelatin desserts, frozen desserts, and is used as a tabletop sweetener.
According to CCC, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients ever, with more than 200 studies confirming its safety. Observational studies have not demonstrated a relationship between aspartame and cancer in humans, the organization said.
But, animal studies, including a large controlled trial published in 2006, suggest a link between aspartame and leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors in rats fed aspartame over their lifetime, even at doses in the range of consumption by humans. FDA reviewed the 2006 study and maintains that the data do not support a link between aspartame and cancers. Later in 2006 another study was published showing no link between aspartame and human cancer, but had important flaws, according to Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) who testified before the committee.
Jacobson said the 2006 study by the National Cancer Institute “seemed to ease cancer fears related to aspartame, but that study had major limitations, including its reliance on imprecise food-frequency questionnaires, and it included only subjects between the ages of 50 and 69 who first consumed aspartame as adults. The effects of consuming aspartame from infancy or childhood might be very different.”
Jacobson told the Committee that a 2007 study conducted by the respected Ramazzini Foundation and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found statistically significant increases in lymphomas and incidence of leukemia in rats that were fed 100 milligrams of the sweetener per kilogram of body weight—an amount equivalent to a 50 lb. child drinking 12 ½ cans of soda. A lower amount, 20 milligrams per kilogram, also caused an increase, but it was not statistically significant.
Apart from diet sodas, aspartame enters the diet through sugar-free or reduced-sugar products, such as gums, candies, yogurts, ice creams, cookies, and hundreds of other products. While a consumer may not drink 12 or18 cans of diet soda a day, they may be consuming higher amounts of aspartame then they are aware of through these other sources.
Last year, following the Ramazzini Foundation study, Jacobson urged the FDA to “evaluate whether aspartame still poses a ‘reasonable certainty of no harm,’ the standard used for gauging the safety of food additives.”
Both the Committee and Assemblyman Dymally have declined to comment as to “whether the issues raised (at the hearing) merit new legislation to provide additional protection to consumers.”