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Aspartame Information

By William Hines

Chief, Washington Bureau Chicago Sun-Times

WASHINGTON - Charging that aspartame - the widely used artificial sweetener marketed as NutraSweet - causes blindness, a consumer group yesterday petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban it.

The petition was another step in a long and so far fruitless campaign by the Washington based Community Nutrition Institute against aspartame, which also is sold in stores under the name Equal.

Three women who said their eyesight was seriously damaged or destroyed joined in the citizens' petition to the FDA, which they asked "to expeditiously remove [the] product from the market without an administrative hearing."

At a press conference called by the institute to announce the imminent-hazard petition, two of the women told of heavy use of aspartame-sweetened products and said their doctors had advised them the sugar substitute was the cause of their sight loss.

The NutraSweet Co., of Skokie, Ill., a subsidiary of Searle & Co., brushed off the institute's complaint as "simply another round in their repeated efforts to gain publicity for their thoroughly discredited views on aspartame."

A Washington-based group called the International Food Information Council said through its executive director, Thomas E. Stenzel, the allegations "that aspartame causes various side effects are not based on any scientific data or controlled clinical studies."

James S. Turner, a Washington lawyer representing the Community Nutrition Institute in the petition, said the eye damage to the women named in the complaint was "a direct, causally related event to their consumption of NutraSweet."

Heavy users

Both women, Dana Cozad of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Joyce Wilson of Stockbridge, Ga., described themselves as heavy users of the sweetener. Wilson, a real estate agent, said she no longer can take sales prospects to see property because her vision does not permit her to drive.

"It has cost me a lot, and I really want the public to know what a dangerous product it is," Wilson said.

Cozad said that vision loss struck her suddenly in the right eye while she was driving home and that lengthy surgery and other sight-saving efforts followed. She said vision is gone in that eye, and - after she has spent 13 months on an aspartame-free diet - the condition of the left eye "remains relatively stable."

Both women said their physicians had ruled out causes other than aspartame for their sight loss.

Methyl alcohol blamed

Dr. H. J. Roberts of West Palm Beach, Fla., said methyl alcohol is a component of aspartame and is responsible for vision damage, which he termed "the most serious complication" of those arising from aspartame use.

Aspartame, which is described as a "natural" product, contains two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which are components of protein. Under certain storage conditions, the sweetener breaks down in part and methyl alcohol is a byproduct.

Roberts said the visual reaction to methyl alcohol in heavy users of aspartame is the same as in drinkers of moonshine whiskey in Prohibition days: "They go blind."

Of 360 patients he has diagnosed as having aspartame-related problems, Roberts said, about one-fourth had decreased vision or blindness, nearly half had severe headaches and substantial numbers had epileptic seizures, confusion or memory loss, extreme depression and marked personality change.

At FDA headquarters in Rockville, Md., spokesman William Grigg said the petition had been received but not yet studied. Grigg recalled that Turner filed several interventions against aspartame in the past, none of which received favorable FDA action.

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