The Politics of Profit…Have a Coke and a Tumor!

When someone sips a diet soft drink, give the lion’s share of the credit to the same guy who laughed it up with our troops in Iraq over their lack of vehicle armor. Our old buddy, The Donald. No, not the preening billionaire with the catastrophic comb-over…the Other Donald. The guy Dubya privately calls Duke Nukem, our own Secretary Of Defense. Donald Rumsfeld is the savior of aspartame, or more commonly, Nutrasweet. Of course, using a name so cute and cuddly for a chemical the Department of Defense called a neurotoxin is rather like boiling old gym socks and bottling the result. You can call it Chateau Lafite, but it doesn’t make it any gentler on the palate.

Rumsfeld is more than just another aging cold warrior. He served ten years in the House of Representatives, then became a beltway insider in D.C. politics dating back to the Nixon and Ford administrations; he served as ambassador to N.A.T.O., White House Chief of Staff and Secretary Of Defense. But his term in private enterprise as CEO, President and Chairman of G.D. Searle and Co. deserves attention in any study of human health and the politics of profit.

When Rumsfeld joined Searle in 1977, the company was in disarray. Searle’s own internal testing offered evidence that aspartame caused brain tumors in rats. Maybe Donald thought, “Cancer in rats? That’s a good thing, right?” He set about reviving aspartame’s sullied fortunes with the single-minded zeal one links with the invasion of a sovereign nation run by people who control billions of barrels of oil, especially if that nation’s leaders display questionable etiquette…like invading sovereign nations run by people who control billions of barrels of oil.

Rumsfeld had one pesky problem as Searle’s aspartame bully boy; the pointy-headed fellows in lab coats at the FDA (hereafter: scientists) had done some testing of their own, and were convinced that Searle had cooked the books on the safety of aspartame. Ooopsy! Mea culpa, mea culpa pleaded Rumsfeld to the task force that was about to tread on his stock options…how can Searle “mend fences” on this issue?

U.S Attorney Sam Skinner to the rescue! Appointed by the FDA in January 1977, Skinner was to convene a grand jury to decide on whether Searle “willfully and criminally withheld data that cast doubt on the safety of aspartame”. Skinner met with Searle’s Chicago law firm of Sidney & Austin in February 1977 to conduct an investigation, but left the employ of the U.S government and joined the law firm of…Sidney & Austin? Good career move, Sam! The next U.S. Attorney to conduct the investigation, William Conlon, must have decided that Skinner had the right idea, as he stymied efforts to convene a grand jury as well. Searle had falsified aspartame test data, of that there is no question, including excising tumors from the brains of the rats used in the study. Conlon left the government and joined Sidney & Austin in January of 1979.

Americans and the truth on NutraSweet were held hostage in 1979 and 1980. The American hostages were in Iran, of course, but evidence on aspartame’s toxicity lay imprisoned within Searle’s reports and the FDA’s own findings. Ronald Reagan, elected amidst the morass of the Iranian hostage crisis, included Donald Rumsfeld as part of his transition team. The day after Reagan took office in 1981, Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval of aspartame. The new commissioner of the FDA, a Reagan-Rumsfeld appointee named Arthur Hayes Hull, Jr., named a five-person Scientific Committee to review the earlier findings. When the vote went 3-2 against approval of aspartame, Hayes did what any fair-minded citizen might do, and appointed a sixth committee member. The committee voted 3-3, leaving Hull to cast the deciding vote, approving aspartame for use in dry products. Aspartame was then approved for use in soft drinks in 1983.

Rumsfeld’s leadership at Searle and then within the early Reagan administration was key to the FDA’s eventual approval of a ghastly, arguably poisonous substance used as a sweetener in approximately 4,000 food products. As a substitute for sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, aspartame promises the taste of sweetness (it is 180 times sweeter than sugar by weight), without adding calories. Unfortunately, for those choosing to Super-Size their Diet Coke to wash down fast food burgers and fries, aspartame plays a nasty internal trick. Aspartame signals the brain to shut down production of serotonin, the hormone that, among other things, regulates the body's ability to sense that we've consumed sufficient carbohydrates to feel 'full'.

Okay, so a person may decide to follow the burger and fries with a dessert to go, what's the harm? A bigger pair of pants? So what? Aspartame keeps giving the consumer more reasons to be cautious, as it degrades into several lethal substances when in aqueous solution above 86F, including formaldehyde (a mortician’s best friend), methanol, formic acid (the substance secreted by fire ants) and a known tumor agent called diketopiperazine (DKP).

There is an six-minute video excerpt from a documentary entitled Sweet Misery featuring James Turner, a consumer attorney who met with Rumsfeld on aspartame, and who knows in detail the manipulations used to get Nutrasweet approved for human consumption.

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