Legislators consider aspartame ban
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By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
Hold on to your diet soda.
A set of bills before the state Legislature would ban aspartame — known also by brand names NutraSweet and Equal — as soon as Jan. 1.
House Bill 2680 is up for a vote in the Health Committee on Wednesday, giving supporters of the ban more time to prove why Hawai'i should become the first state to ban a federally approved product, a move lawmakers are unlikely to make without strong evidence of a public health risk.
Proponents of the bill were told after a public hearing last week that a ban would be hard to push through.
Those who want aspartame taken out of Hawai'i's food supply call it a neurotoxin, a carcinogen and the source of headaches, heart spasms and a host of other ills.
"We would stop many of the neurological problems that people have today. We'd stop a lot of the cancers that are happening today. We would stop a lot of fatalities that are occurring today," said ban supporter Jade Brujell of Moloka'i.
But the state Department of Health submitted written testimony rebutting that. "Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has ever approved," according to Health Department Director Chiyome Fukino's testimony.
A 2007 study published in Informa Healthcare's respected commercial journal "Critical Reviews of Toxicology," concluded that aspartame does not cause cancer, has no effect on behavior, cognitive function, neural function or seizures and is safe for diabetics who adhere to a sugar-free diet, she said.
Aspartame, which was introduced in 1981, is found in more than 6,000 products from chewing gum to some medications, and is used by more than 200 million people worldwide, according to state statistics.
Richard Botti, a lobbyist who testified as an individual, said as a diabetic, he reaches for the sweetener instead of sugar. While aspartame might have health risks, sugar definitely does for diabetics.
"Either one can be bad," he said. "If you ban this, what am I going to do? I'm going to die from sugar," he said.
But another diabetic, retired nuclear engineer Adrian Chang, who also suffers from high blood pressure and heart spasms, noticed a positive change in his health after cutting out diet sodas.
"By process of elimination, detailed record keeping and strict regimented diet, there is little doubt in my engineering mind that aspartame beverages were making me sick," he wrote in testimony.
Melissa Yee, a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, said she advises her patients to stop drinking aspartame-sweetened beverages and said, "In most cases, the headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, muscle aches and other symptoms related to their condition are gone within weeks."
Ruth Nakasone of Pearl City, in written testimony, said, "Aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol and formaldehyde. It probably has its place in industry, but certainly not good for our brains and bodies. By setting a ban, it would send a strong message to our food industry that they should be very conscious of selling us food that is safe."
The bill drew testimony from all over the country.
New Mexico state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, who had failed to get a similar bill passed in his state, submitted written testimony that blamed "corporate lobbyists' theories of federal pre-emption" for killing similar bills he had submitted in 2006 and 2007.
The bill was opposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Beverage Association and the Retail Merchants of Hawai'i.
The Atlanta-based Calorie Control Council — which includes companies that make and use aspartame — said the product was useful in weight loss and offers diabetics a wider range of products to choose from. "Removing aspartame from the food supply would seriously impact the availability of low- and reduced-calorie foods and beverages, negatively affecting the millions of people who depend on these products to reduce and control calories," said council president Lyn O'Brien Nabors in written testimony.
However, Cori Brackett, of Tucson, Ariz., e-mailed lawmakers testimony in which she called herself an aspartame survivor. "In 2002, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and shortly thereafter was confined to a wheelchair with double vision and slurred speech," she wrote.
Blaming her diet drink for the disease, Brackett said, "The largest tragedy in my own life was thinking that aspartame was not only safe, but good for me."
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.
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