By Pratap Ravindran
COCA-COLA, PepsiCo and a whole bunch of other big companies are in the dock again, this time around because of their use of the artificial sweetener, aspartame.
It all started with a Miami longshoreman, Mr. Bartimous Berry, filing a lawsuit in March in a state court in Miami, claiming that Coca-Cola Co, the world’s largest manufacturer of soft drinks, is selling a version of Diet Coke at soda fountains which are cheaper and more profitable than the formula used for beverages sold in cans and bottles.
It was alleged in the suit that Coca-Cola mixes the sweeteners, aspartame and saccharin, in its beverages sold at soda fountains, while canned and bottled Diet Coke contains only the more expensive aspartame.
Coca-Cola, which says it uses saccharin to stabilize fountain syrup before adding carbonated water, doesn’t advertise the difference, according to the suit.
Mr. Lance Harke, who represents Mr. Berry in the suit which seeks to represent all Florida soda buyers, told the media: “Coca-Cola profits not only because there’s a higher profit margin but also there’s a stigma associated with saccharin rightly or wrongly.”
It may be recalled in this context that saccharin had formerly been classified as a carcinogen in the US.
Mr. Dan Schafer, Coca-Cola spokesman, had been quoted by the media as saying that saccharin is used for “product quality reasons” and not for “money reasons.”
According to Mr. Schafer, aspartame loses its sweetness faster in a fountain drink than in a canned or bottled soda. He said, “We think the suits are frivolous and we think they are without merit,” adding that the company faces identical allegations in lawsuits filed in Illinois and California.
Subsequently, in April, other lawsuits were filed in three separate California courts, Shasta, Sonoma and Butte County, against twelve companies which produce or use the artificial sweetener aspartame, originally made and marketed by Monsanto Corporation, as a sugar substitute in their products.
The defendants in the lawsuits, which identify aspartame as a neurotoxin, include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Bayer Corp, the Dannon Company, William Wrigley Jr. Company, ConAgra Foods, Wyeth Inc, The NutraSweet Company, and Altria Corp (parent company of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris).
The plaintiffs have asked for an injunction to stop companies from producing, manufacturing, processing, selling or using aspartame and, in all three cases, have sought a jury trial.
The suits allege that the food companies committed fraud and breach of warranty by marketing products with the full knowledge that aspartame, the sweetener in them, is neurotoxic.
According to the plaintiffs, aspartame is a drug masquerading as an additive. It interacts with other drugs and is a chemical hyper-sensitization agent. Aspartame, it has been alleged, causes headache, memory loss, seizures, vision loss, coma and cancer. In addition, it worsens or mimics the symptoms of such diseases and conditions as fibromyalgia, MS, lupus, ADD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue and depression.
Experts have been quoted as saying that aspartame liberates free methyl alcohol. The resulting chronic methanol poisoning affects the dopamine system of the brain causing addiction. Methanol, or wood alcohol, constitutes one-third of the aspartame molecule and is classified as a severe metabolic poison and narcotic. Further, the consumption of aspartame can cause sudden death brought about by the damage it inflicts on the cardiac conduction system.
Herbal variants find their way
The dangers of aspartame (NutraSweet) ingestion were first publicized in India in the July-December 1995 issue of the Association for Consumers Action on Safety and Health (ACASH) newsletter.
The ACASH newsletter warning had stated: “All of the breakdown products of aspartame are toxic. It has been shown that Aspartic Acid and Gutamic acids in free forms can cause severe neurological damage. These acids damage the nerve cells in its free forms.”
The warning had been based at least in part on a review of aspartame research which appeared in the Journal of the Diabetic Association of India (Vol. 35, No. 4, 1995). The research review was written by Dr. J. Barua (Ophthalmologist) and Dr. Arun Bal (Surgeon).
This and other similar warnings notwithstanding, the Union Government permits the use of artificial sweeteners in approximately 25 food items, including sugar confectionery, toffee, lozenges, chewing gum, chocolate products, carbonated water, soft drinks, traditional sweets, jams and jellies.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s draft notification amending the PFA rules, the use of artificial sweeteners can be allowed in food products according to specifications. Manufacturers are, however, required to print a declaration on the package saying, “contains artificial sweetener.”
Today, the country’s artificial sweetener industry has an aggregate, annual turnover of Rs 60 crore and is estimated to be growing at 20 per cent a year because it has successfully expanded its clientele from diabetics to all calorie-conscious people. Almost all these artificial sweeteners contain aspartame.
According to the industry, aspartame has been approved by major food and drug regulatory authorities across the world.
However, with some medical practitioners in India questioning the merits of its long-term usage among healthy people, some herbal variants which contain neither sugar nor aspartame have been introduced in the domestic market.
Copyright © 2004, The Hindu Business Line. Online at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com.