NutraSweet Fuss Amounts to Sweet Nothings

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Sadly, even when the media gets it right on health issues, they often only get it partly right. Consider the recent fuss over the study linking the artificial sweetener aspartame, better known as NutraSweet, to brain cancer. But recall that Olney’s study shows only four years between the brain cancer increase and the introduction of NutraSweet. Further, as Olney acknowledges, NutraSweet didn’t really get into wide use until 1983, just two years before the jump in brain cancers. What happened to that 20-year lag time Olney had talked about? But it seems that NutraSweet hasn’t been Olney’s only target. The three products that have traditionally brought the weirdos out of the woodwork in this country are artificial sweeteners, fluoride (added to water supplies to prevent tooth decay), and monosodium glutamate (MSG). So far as I know, Olney has had nothing to do with fluoride hysteria, but MSG is a different matter. Since the late 1960s, Olney has also railed against this popular additive to Chinese and other foods. Indeed, in 1975 he and an activist group called Consumer Action for Improved Food and Drugs, declared that MSG combined with, yes, NutraSweet it would cause brain damage in children. Olney was quoted as an "expert" in a 1991 60 Minutes segment, reported by Ed Bradley, that sought — unsuccessfully — to incite a national panic over MSG. This show was two years after Bradley kicked off the Alar panic. Yet, the World Health Organization and the European Community’s Scientific Committee for Food had already both concluded there was no research to indicated MSG was a health hazard. Since then, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs came to the same conclusion. Just within the past couple of months, an FDA panel found MSG to be harmless, save for the possibility that it could worsen symptoms in some persons suffering severe asthma. None of this is to say that certain foods can’t cause certain bad reactions in some individuals, including NutraSweet or MSG. (Tens of millions of Americans have bad reactions to sugar. They’re called diabetics.) Indeed, there have been people who have gone into shock and died after eating a single peanut. Three years ago, I developed a slight case of hives after eating a Hostess apple pie, though I’d been eating them all my adult life. Go figure. But you don’t see me going out and forming the Fruit Pie Consumer Safety Network. Then again, if I develop a brain tumor in the next year or two, I know what national bakery I’m going to sue!