Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

Print Email Share Tweet

Long History of Concerns
Key Scientific Studies on Aspartame
Industry PR Efforts
Scientific References

Key Facts About Diet Soda Chemical 

What is Aspartame?

  • Aspartame is the world’s most widely used artificial sweetener. It is also marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin and AminoSweet.
  • Aspartame is present in more than 6,000 products, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Kool Aid, Crystal Light, Tango and other artificially sweetened drinks; sugar-free Jell-O products; Trident, Dentyne and most other brands of sugar-free gum; sugar-free hard candies; low- or no-sugar sweet condiments such as ketchups and dressings; children’s medicines, vitamins and cough drops.
  • Aspartame is a synthetic chemical composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, with a methyl ester. When consumed, the methyl ester breaks down into methanol, which may be converted into formaldehyde.

Decades of Studies Raise Concerns about Aspartame

Since aspartame was first approved in 1974, both FDA scientists and independent scientists have raised concerns about possible health effects and shortcomings in the science submitted to the FDA by the manufacturer, G.D. Searle. (Monsanto bought Searle in 1984).

In 1987, UPI published a series of investigative articles by Gregory Gordon reporting on these concerns, including early studies linking aspartame to health problems, the poor quality of industry-funded research that led to its approval, and the revolving-door relationships between FDA officials and the food industry. Gordon’s series is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the history of aspartame/NutraSweet:

Health Effects and Key Studies on Aspartame 

While many studies, some of them industry sponsored, have reported no problems with aspartame, dozens of independent studies conducted over decades have linked aspartame to a long list of health problems, including:

Cancer

In the most comprehensive cancer research to date on aspartame, three lifespan studies conducted by the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the Ramazzini Institute, provide consistent evidence of carcinogenicity in rodents exposed to the substance.

  • Aspartame “is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, even at a daily dose of … much less than the current acceptable daily intake,” according to a 2006 lifespan rat study in Environmental Health Perspectives.1
  • A follow-up study in 2007 found significant dose-related increases in malignant tumors in some of the rats. “The results … confirm and reinforce the first experimental demonstration of [aspartame’s] multipotential carcinogenicity at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans … when life-span exposure begins during fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased,” the researchers wrote in Environmental Health Perspectives.2
  • The results of a 2010 lifespan study “confirm that [aspartame] is a carcinogenic agent in multiple sites in rodents, and that this effect is induced in two species, rats (males and females) and mice (males),” the researchers reported in American Journal of Industrial Medicine.3

Harvard researchers in 2012 reported a positive association between aspartame intake and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in men, and for leukemia in men and women. The findings “preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect … on select cancers” but “do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation,” the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.4

In a 2014 commentary in American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the Maltoni Center researchers wrote that the studies submitted by G. D. Searle for market approval “do not provide adequate scientific support for [aspartame’s] safety. In contrast, recent results of life-span carcinogenicity bioassays on rats and mice published in peer-reviewed journals, and a prospective epidemiological study, provide consistent evidence of [aspartame’s] carcinogenic potential. On the basis of the evidence of the potential carcinogenic effects … a re-evaluation of the current position of international regulatory agencies must be considered an urgent matter of public health.”5

Brain Tumors

In 1996, researchers reported in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology on epidemiological evidence connecting the introduction of aspartame to an increase in an aggressive type of malignant brain tumors. “Compared to other environmental factors putatively linked to brain tumors, the artificial sweetener aspartame is a promising candidate to explain the recent increase in incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors … We conclude that there is need for reassessing the carcinogenic potential of aspartame.”6

  • Neuroscientist Dr. John Olney, lead author of the study, told 60 minutes in 1996: “there has been a striking increase in the incidence of malignant brain tumors (in the three to five years following the approval of aspartame) … there is enough basis to suspect aspartame that it needs to be reassessed. FDA needs to reassess it, and this time around, FDA should do it right.”

Early studies on aspartame in the 1970s found evidence of brain tumors in laboratory animals, but those studies were not followed up.

Cardiovascular Disease 

A 2017 meta-analysis of research on artificial sweeteners, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found no clear evidence of weight loss benefits for artificial sweeteners in randomized clinical trials, and reported that cohort studies associate artificial sweeteners with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.”7

  • See also: “Artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss and may lead to gained pounds,” by Catherine Caruso, STAT (7.17.2017)

 A 2016 paper in Physiology & Behavior reported, “there is a striking congruence between results from animal research and a number of large-scale, long-term observational studies in humans, in finding significantly increased weight gain, adiposity, incidence of obesity, cardiometabolic risk, and even total mortality among individuals with chronic, daily exposure to low-calorie sweeteners – and these results are troubling.”8

Women who consumed more than two diet drinks per day “had a higher risk of [cardiovascular disease] events … [cardiovascular disease] mortality … and overall mortality,” according to a 2014 study from the Women’s Health Initiative published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.9

Stroke, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

People drinking diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia as those who consumed it weekly or less. This included a higher risk of ischemic stroke, where blood vessels in the brain become obstructed, and Alzheimer’s disease dementia, the most common form of dementia, reported a 2017 study in Stroke.10

In the body, the methyl ester in aspartame metabolizes into methanol and then it may be converted to formaldehyde, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A two-part study published in 2014 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease linked chronic methanol exposure to memory loss and Alzheimer’s Disease symptoms in mice and monkeys.

  • “[M]ethanol-fed mice presented with partial AD-like symptoms … These findings add to a growing body of evidence that links formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 1)11
  • “[M]ethanol feeding caused long-lasting and persistent pathological changes that were related to [Alzheimer’s disease] … these findings support a growing body of evidence that links methanol and its metabolite formaldehyde to [Alzheimer’s disease] pathology.” (Part 2)12

Seizures

“Aspartame appears to exacerbate the amount of EEG spike wave in children with absence seizures. Further studies are needed to establish if this effect occurs at lower doses and in other seizure types,” according to a 1992 study in Neurology.13

Aspartame “has seizure-promoting activity in animal models that are widely used to identify compounds affecting … seizure incidence,” according to a 1987 study in Environmental Health Perspectives.14

Very high aspartame doses “might also affect the likelihood of seizures in symptomless but susceptible people,” according to a 1985 study in The Lancet. The study describes three previously healthy adults who had grand mal seizures during periods when they were consuming high doses of aspartame.15

Neurotoxicity, Brain Damage and Mood Disorders

Aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems including learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, wrote the researchers of a 2017 study in Nutritional Neuroscience. “Aspartame consumption needs to be approached with caution due to the possible effects on neurobehavioral health.”16

“Oral aspartame significantly altered behavior, anti-oxidant status and morphology of the hippocampus in mice; also, it may probably trigger hippocampal adult neurogenesis,” reported a 2016 study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.17 

“Previously, it has been reported that consumption of aspartame could cause neurological and behavioural disturbances in sensitive individuals. Headaches, insomnia and seizures are also some of the neurological effects that have been encountered,” according to a 2008 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “[W]e propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders … and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning.”18 

“(N)eurological symptoms, including learning and memory processes, may be related to the high or toxic concentrations of the sweetener [aspartame] metabolites,” states a 2006 study in Pharmacological Research.19

Aspartate “could impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice,” according to a 2000 mice study published in Toxicology Letters.20

“(I)ndividuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to this artificial sweetener and its use in this population should be discouraged,” according to a 1993 study in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry.21

High doses of aspartame “can generate major neurochemical changes in rats,” reported a 1984 study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.22

Experiments indicated brain damage in infant mice following oral intake of aspartate, and showing that “aspartate [is] toxic to the infant mouse at relatively low levels of oral intake,” reported a 1970 study in Nature.23

Headaches and Migraines

“Aspartame, a popular dietetic sweetener, may provoke headache in some susceptible individuals. Herein, we describe three cases of young women with migraine who reported their headaches could be provoked by chewing sugarless gum containing aspartame,” according to a 1997 paper in Headache Journal.24

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo published in 1994 in Neurology, “provides evidence that, among individuals with self-reported headaches after ingestion of aspartame, a subset of this group report more headaches when tested under controlled conditions. It appears that some people are particularly susceptible to headaches caused by aspartame and may want to limit their consumption.”25

A survey of 171 patients at the Montefiore Medical Center Headache Unit found that patients with migraine “reported aspartame as a precipitant three times more often than those having other types of headache … We conclude aspartame may be an important dietary trigger of headache in some people,” 1989 study in Headache Journal.26

A crossover trial comparing aspartame and a placebo on the frequency and intensity of migraines “indicated that the ingestion of aspartame by migraineurs caused a significant increase in headache frequency for some subjects,” reported a 1988 study in Headache Journal.27

Kidney Function Decline

Consumption of more than two servings a day of artificially sweetened soda “is associated with a 2-fold increased odds for kidney function decline in women,” according to a 2011 study in the Clinical Journal of American Society of Nephrology.28

Weight Gain, Increased Appetite and Obesity Related Problems

Several studies link aspartame to weight gain, increased appetite, diabetes, metabolic derangement and obesity-related diseases. See our fact sheet: Diet Soda Chemical Tied to Weight Gain.

This science linking aspartame to weight gain and obesity-related diseases raises questions about the legality of marketing aspartame-containing products as “diet” or weight loss aids. In 2015, USRTK petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and FDA to investigate the marketing and advertising practices of “diet” products that contain a chemical linked to weight gain. See related news coverage, response from FTC, and response from FDA.

Diabetes and Metabolic Derangement

Aspartame breaks down in part into phenylalanine, which interferes with the action of an enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) previously shown to prevent metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease) according to a 2017 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. In this study, mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight and developed other symptoms of metabolic syndrome than animals fed similar diets lacking aspartame. The study concludes, “IAP’s protective effects in regard to the metabolic syndrome may be inhibited by phenylalanine, a metabolite of aspartame, perhaps explaining the lack of expected weight loss and metabolic improvements associated with diet drinks.”29

People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at increased risk of “excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” according to a 2013 Purdue review over 40 years published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.30

In a study that followed 66,118 women over 14 years, both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with risk of Type 2 diabetes. “Strong positive trends in T2D risk were also observed across quartiles of consumption for both types of beverage … No association was observed for 100% fruit juice consumption,” reported the 2013 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.31

Intestinal Dysbiosis, Metabolic Derangement and Obesity

Artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, according to a 2014 study in Nature. The researchers wrote, “our results link NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage … Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic [obesity] that they themselves were intended to fight.”32

A 2016 study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism reported, “Aspartame intake significantly influenced the association between body mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance… consumption of aspartame is associated with greater obesity-related impairments in glucose tolerance.”33

According to a 2014 rat study in PLoS ONE, “aspartame elevated fasting glucose levels and an insulin tolerance test showed aspartame to impair insulin-stimulated glucose disposal … Fecal analysis of gut bacterial composition showed aspartame to increase total bacteria…”34

 Pregnancy Abnormalities: Pre Term Birth 

According to a 2010 cohort study of 59,334 Danish pregnant women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “There was an association between intake of artificially sweetened carbonated and noncarbonated soft drinks and an increased risk of preterm delivery.” The study concluded, “Daily intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks may increase the risk of preterm delivery.”35

  • See also: “Downing Diet Soda Tied to Premature Birth,” by Anne Harding, Reuters (7.23.2010)

Overweight Babies

Artificially sweetened beverage consumption during pregnancy is linked to higher body mass index for babies, according to a 2016 study in JAMA Pediatrics. “To our knowledge, we provide the first human evidence that maternal consumption of artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may influence infant BMI,” the researchers wrote.36

Early Menarche

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study followed 1988 girls for 10 years to examine prospective associations between consumption of caffeinated and noncaffeinated sugar- and artificially sweetened soft drinks and early menarche. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks was positively associated with risk of early menarche in a US cohort of African American and Caucasian girls,” concluded the study published in 2015 in Journal of American Clinical Nutrition.37

Sperm Damage

“A significant decrease in sperm function of aspartame treated animals was observed when compared with the control and MTX control,” according to a 2017 study in the International Journal of Impotence Research. “… These findings demonstrate that aspartame metabolites could be a contributing factor for development of oxidative stress in the epididymal sperm.”38

Liver Damage and Glutathione Depletion

A mouse study published in 2017 in Redox Biology reported, “Chronic administration of aspartame … caused liver injury as well as marked decreased hepatic levels of reduced glutathione, oxidized glutathione, γ-glutamylcysteine, and most metabolites of the trans-sulphuration pathway…”39

A rat study published in 2017 in Nutrition Research found that, “Subchronic intake of soft drink or aspartame substantially induced hyperglycemia and hypertriacylglycerolemia… Several cytoarchitecture alterations were detected in the liver, including degeneration, infiltration, necrosis, and fibrosis, predominantly with aspartame. These data suggest that long-term intake of soft drink or aspartame-induced hepatic damage may be mediated by the induction of hyperglycemia, lipid accumulation, and oxidative stress with the involvement of adipocytokines.”40

Caution for Vulnerable Populations

A 2016 literature review on artificial sweeteners in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology reported, “there is inconclusive evidence to support most of their uses and some recent studies even hint that these earlier established benefits … might not be true.” Susceptible populations such as pregnant and lactating women, children, diabetics, migraine, and epilepsy patients “should use these products with utmost caution.”41

Industry PR Efforts and Front Groups 

From the start, G.D. Searle (later Monsanto and the NutraSweet Company) deployed aggressive PR tactics to market aspartame as a safe product. In October 1987, Gregory Gordon reported in UPI:

“The NutraSweet Co. also has paid up to $3 million a year for a 100-person public relations effort by the Chicago offices of Burson Marsteller, a former employee of the New York PR firm said. The employee said Burson Marsteller has hired numerous scientists and physicians, often at $1,000 a day, to defend the sweetener in media interviews and other public forums. Burson Marsteller declines to discuss such matters.”

Recent reporting based on internal industry documents reveals how beverage companies such as Coca-Cola also pay third party messengers, including doctors and scientists, to promote their products and shift the blame when science ties their products to serious health problems.

See reporting by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times, Candice Choi in the Associated Press, and findings from the USRTK investigation about sugar industry propaganda and lobbying campaigns.

News articles about soda industry PR campaigns:

Overview news stories about aspartame:

USRTK Fact Sheets

Reports on Front Groups and PR Campaigns

Scientific References

[1] Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Degli Esposti D, Lambertini L, Tibaldi E, Rigano A. “First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Mar;114(3):379-85. PMID: 16507461. (article)

[2] Soffritti M, Belpoggi F, Tibaldi E, Esposti DD, Lauriola M. “Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats.” Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Sep;115(9):1293-7. PMID: 17805418. (article)

[3] Soffritti M et al. “Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice.” Am J Ind Med. 2010 Dec; 53(12):1197-206. PMID: 20886530. (abstract / article)

[4] Schernhammer ES, Bertrand KA, Birmann BM, Sampson L, Willett WC, Feskanich D., “Consumption of artificial sweetener– and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1419-28. PMID: 23097267. (abstract / article)

[5] Soffritti M1, Padovani M, Tibaldi E, Falcioni L, Manservisi F, Belpoggi F., “The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation.” Am J Ind Med. 2014 Apr;57(4):383-97. doi: 10.1002/ajim.22296. Epub 2014 Jan 16. (abstract / article)

[6] Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. “Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame?” J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov;55(11):1115-23. PMID: 8939194. (abstract)

[7] Azad, Meghan B., et al. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. CMAJ July 17, 2017 vol. 189 no. 28 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390 (abstract / article)

[8] Fowler SP. Low-calorie sweetener use and energy balance: Results from experimental studies in animals, and large-scale prospective studies in humans. Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 1;164(Pt B):517-23. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.047. Epub 2016 Apr 26. (abstract)

[9] Vyas A et al. “Diet Drink Consumption And The Risk of Cardiovascular Events: A Report from The Women’s Health Initiative.” J Gen Intern Med. 2015 Apr;30(4):462-8. doi: 10.1007/s11606-014-3098-0. Epub 2014 Dec 17. (abstract / article)

[10] Matthew P. Pase, PhD; Jayandra J. Himali, PhD; Alexa S. Beiser, PhD; Hugo J. Aparicio, MD; Claudia L. Satizabal, PhD; Ramachandran S. Vasan, MD; Sudha Seshadri, MD; Paul F. Jacques, DSc. “Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Risks of Incident Stroke and Dementia. A Prospective Cohort Study.” Stroke. 2017 April; STROKEAHA.116.016027 (abstract / article)

[11] Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 1): Chronic Methanol Feeding Led to Memory Impairments and Tau Hyperphosphorylation in Mice.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

[12] Yang M et al. “Alzheimer’s Disease and Methanol Toxicity (Part 2): Lessons from Four Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) Chronically Fed Methanol.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Apr 30. (abstract)

[13] Camfield PR, Camfield CS, Dooley JM, Gordon K, Jollymore S, Weaver DF. “Aspartame exacerbates EEG spike-wave discharge in children with generalized absence epilepsy: a double-blind controlled study.” Neurology. 1992 May;42(5):1000-3. PMID: 1579221. (abstract)

[14] Maher TJ, Wurtman RJ. “Possible neurologic effects of aspartame, a widely used food additive.” Environ Health Perspect. 1987 Nov; 75:53-7. PMID: 3319565. (abstract / article)

[15] Wurtman RJ. “Aspartame: possible effect on seizure susceptibility.” Lancet. 1985 Nov 9;2(8463):1060. PMID: 2865529. (abstract)

[16] Choudhary AK, Lee YY. “Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?” Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Feb 15:1-11. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. (abstract)

[17] Onaolapo AY, Onaolapo OJ, Nwoha PU. “Aspartame and the hippocampus: Revealing a bi-directional, dose/time-dependent behavioural and morphological shift in mice.” Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2017 Mar;139:76-88. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2016.12.021. Epub 2016 Dec 31. (abstract)

[18] Humphries P, Pretorius E, Naudé H. “Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;62(4):451-62. (abstract / article)

[19] Tsakiris S, Giannoulia-Karantana A, Simintzi I, Schulpis KH. “The effect of aspartame metabolites on human erythrocyte membrane acetylcholinesterase activity.” Pharmacol Res. 2006 Jan;53(1):1-5. PMID: 16129618. (abstract)

[20] Park CH et al. “Glutamate and aspartate impair memory retention and damage hypothalamic neurons in adult mice.” Toxicol Lett. 2000 May 19;115(2):117-25. PMID: 10802387. (abstract)

[21] Walton RG, Hudak R, Green-Waite R. “Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population.” J. Biol Psychiatry. 1993 Jul 1-15;34(1-2):13-7. PMID: 8373935. (abstract / article)

[22] Yokogoshi H, Roberts CH, Caballero B, Wurtman RJ. “Effects of aspartame and glucose administration on brain and plasma levels of large neutral amino acids and brain 5-hydroxyindoles.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Jul;40(1):1-7. PMID: 6204522. (abstract)

[23] Olney JW, Ho OL. “Brain Damage in Infant Mice Following Oral Intake of Glutamate, Aspartate or Cysteine.” Nature. 1970 Aug 8;227(5258):609-11. PMID: 5464249. (abstract)

[24] Blumenthal HJ, Vance DA. “Chewing gum headaches.” Headache. 1997 Nov-Dec; 37(10):665-6. PMID: 9439090. (abstract/article)

[25] Van den Eeden SK, Koepsell TD, Longstreth WT Jr, van Belle G, Daling JR, McKnight B. “Aspartame ingestion and headaches: a randomized crossover trial.” Neurology. 1994 Oct;44(10):1787-93. PMID: 7936222. (abstract)

[26] Lipton RB, Newman LC, Cohen JS, Solomon S. “Aspartame as a dietary trigger of headache.” Headache. 1989 Feb;29(2):90-2. PMID: 2708042. (abstract)

[27] Koehler SM, Glaros A. “The effect of aspartame on migraine headache.” Headache. 1988 Feb;28(1):10-4. PMID: 3277925. (abstract)

[28] Julie Lin and Gary C. Curhan. “Associations of Sugar and Artificially Sweetened Soda with Albuminuria and Kidney Function Decline in Women.” Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan; 6(1): 160–166. (abstract / article)

[29] Gul SS, Hamilton AR, Munoz AR, Phupitakphol T, Liu W, Hyoju SK, Economopoulos KP, Morrison S, Hu D, Zhang W, Gharedaghi MH, Huo H, Hamarneh SR, Hodin RA. “Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Jan;42(1):77-83. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346. Epub 2016 Nov 18. (abstract / article)

[30] Susan E. Swithers, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep; 24(9): 431–441. (article)

[31] Guy Fagherazzi, A Vilier, D Saes Sartorelli, M Lajous, B Balkau, F Clavel-Chapelon. “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013, Jan 30; doi: 10.3945/ ajcn.112.050997 ajcn.050997. (abstract/article)

[32] Suez J et al. “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota.” Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521). PMID: 25231862. (abstract / article)

[33] Kuk JL, Brown RE. “Aspartame intake is associated with greater glucose intolerance in individuals with obesity.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):795-8. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0675. Epub 2016 May 24. (abstract)

[34] Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109841. (article)

[35] Halldorsson TI, Strøm M, Petersen SB, Olsen SF. “Intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and risk of preterm delivery: a prospective cohort study in 59,334 Danish pregnant women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;92(3):626-33. PMID: 20592133. (abstract / article)

[36] Meghan B. Azad, PhD; Atul K. Sharma, MSc, MD; Russell J. de Souza, RD, ScD; et al. “Association Between Artificially Sweetened Beverage Consumption During Pregnancy and Infant Body Mass Index.” JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(7):662-670. (abstract)

[37] Mueller NT, Jacobs DR Jr, MacLehose RF, Demerath EW, Kelly SP, Dreyfus JG, Pereira MA. “Consumption of caffeinated and artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with risk of early menarche.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;102(3):648-54. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100958. Epub 2015 Jul 15. (abstract)

[38] Ashok I, Poornima PS, Wankhar D, Ravindran R, Sheeladevi R. “Oxidative stress evoked damages on rat sperm and attenuated antioxidant status on consumption of aspartame.” Int J Impot Res. 2017 Apr 27. doi: 10.1038/ijir.2017.17. (abstract / article)

[39] Finamor I, Pérez S, Bressan CA, Brenner CE, Rius-Pérez S, Brittes PC, Cheiran G, Rocha MI, da Veiga M, Sastre J, Pavanato MA., “Chronic aspartame intake causes changes in the trans-sulphuration pathway, glutathione depletion and liver damage in mice.” Redox Biol. 2017 Apr;11:701-707. doi: 10.1016/j.redox.2017.01.019. Epub 2017 Feb 1. (abstract/article)

[40] Lebda MA, Tohamy HG, El-Sayed YS. “Long-term soft drink and aspartame intake induces hepatic damage via dysregulation of adipocytokines and alteration of the lipid profile and antioxidant status.” Nutr Res. 2017 Apr 19. pii: S0271-5317(17)30096-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2017.04.002. [Epub ahead of print] (abstract)

[41] Sharma A, Amarnath S, Thulasimani M, Ramaswamy S. “Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?” Indian J Pharmacol 2016;48:237-40 (article)

Aspartame Tied to Weight Gain, Increased Appetite, Obesity

Print Email Share Tweet

Science on Weight Gain + Obesity Related Issues
Industry Science
Is “Diet” Deceptive Marketing?
Scientific References

Aspartame, the world’s most popular sugar substitute, is found in thousands of sugar-free, low-sugar and so-called “diet” drinks and foods. Yet the scientific evidence described in this fact sheet links aspartame to weight gain, increased appetite, diabetes, metabolic derangement and obesity-related diseases.

Please share this resource. See also our companion fact sheet, Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks, with information about the peer-reviewed studies linking aspartame to cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, seizures, shortened pregnancies and headaches.

Quick Facts

  • Aspartame — also marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin and AminoSweet — is the world’s most widely used artificial sweetener. The chemical is found in thousands of food and beverage products, including Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, sugar-free gum, candy, condiments and vitamins.
  • The FDA has said aspartame is “safe for the general population under certain conditions.” Many scientists have said the FDA approval was based on suspect data and should be reconsidered.
  • Dozens of studies conducted over decades link aspartame to serious health problems.

Aspartame, Weight Gain + Obesity Related Issues 

Five reviews of the scientific literature on artificial sweeteners suggest that they do not contribute to weight loss, and instead may cause weight gain.

  • A 2017 meta analysis of research on artificial sweeteners, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found no clear evidence of weight loss benefits for artificial sweeteners in randomized clinical trials, and reported that cohort studies associate artificial sweeteners with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.”1
    • See also: “Artificial sweeteners don’t help with weight loss and may lead to gained pounds,” by Catherine Caruso, STAT (7.17.2017)
  • A 2013 Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism review article finds “accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of these sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” and that “frequent consumption of high-intensity sweeteners may have the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.”2
  • A 2009 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review article finds that the “addition of NNS [nonnutritive sweeteners] to diets poses no benefit for weight loss or reduced weight gain without energy restriction. There are long-standing and recent concerns that inclusion of NNS in the diet promotes energy intake and contributes to obesity.”3
  • A 2010 Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine review of the literature on artificial sweeteners concludes that, “research studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain.”4
  • A 2010 International Journal of Pediatric Obesity review article states, “Data from large, epidemiologic studies support the existence of an association between artificially-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain in children.”5

Epidemiological evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners are implicated in weight gain. For example:

  • The San Antonio Heart Study “observed a classic, positive dose-response relationship between AS [artificially sweetened] beverage consumption and long-term weight gain.” Furthermore, it found that consuming more than 21 artificially sweetened beverages per week – compared to those who consumed none, “was associated with almost-doubled risk” of overweight or obesity.”6
  • A study of beverage consumption among children and adolescents aged 6-19 published in International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that “BMI is positively associated with consumption of diet carbonated beverages.”7
  • A two-year study in of 164 children published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that “Increases in diet soda consumption were significantly greater for overweight and subjects who gained weight as compared to normal weight subjects. Baseline BMI Z-score and year 2 diet soda consumption predicted 83.1% of the variance in year 2 BMI Z-score.” It also found that “Diet soda consumption was the only type of beverage associated with year 2 BMI Z-score, and consumption was greater in overweight subjects and subjects who gained weight as compared to normal weight subjects at two years.”8
  • The U.S. Growing Up Today study of more than 10,000 children aged 9-14 found that, for boys, intakes of diet soda “were significantly associated with weight gains.”9
  • A 2016 study in the International Journal of Obesity reported finding seven tentatively replicated factors showing significant associations with abdominal obesity in women, including aspartame intake.10
  • People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at increased risk of “excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,”11 according to a 2013 Purdue review over 40 years published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism

Other types of studies similarly suggest that artificial sweeteners do not contribute to weight loss. For example, interventional studies do not support the notion that artificial sweeteners produce weight loss. According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine review of the scientific literature, “consensus from interventional studies suggests that artificial sweeteners do not help reduce weight when used alone.”12

Some studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners increase appetite, which may promote weight gain. For example, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine review found that “Preload experiments generally have found that sweet taste, whether delivered by sugar or artificial sweeteners, enhanced human appetite.”13

Studies based on rodents suggest that consumption of artificial sweeteners can lead to consuming extra food. According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine review, “ Inconsistent coupling between sweet taste and caloric content can lead to compensatory overeating and positive energy balance.” In addition, according to the same article, “artificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence.”14

A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that “Overweight and obese adults in the United States drink more diet beverages than healthy-weight adults, consume significantly more calories from solid food—at both meals and snacks—than overweight and obese adults who drink SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages], and consume a comparable amount of total calories as overweight and obese adults who drink SSBs.”15

A 2015 study of older adults in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found “In a striking dose-response relationship,” that “increasing DSI [diet soda intake] was associated with escalating abdominal obesity…”16

An important 2014 study published in Nature found that “consumption of commonly used NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota … our results link NAS consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities … Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.”17

Diabetes and Metabolic Derangement

Aspartame breaks down in part into phenylalanine, which interferes with the action of an enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) previously shown to prevent metabolic syndrome, which is a group of symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. According to a 2017 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight and developed other symptoms of metabolic syndrome than animals fed similar diets lacking aspartame. The study concludes, “IAP’s protective effects in regard to the metabolic syndrome may be inhibited by phenylalanine, a metabolite of aspartame, perhaps explaining the lack of expected weight loss and metabolic improvements associated with diet drinks.”18

  • See also: Mass General press release on the study, “Aspartame may prevent, not promote, weight loss by blocking intestinal enzyme’s activity”

People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at increased risk of “excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” according to a 2013 Purdue review over 40 years published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.19

In a study that followed 66,118 women over 14 years, both sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with risk of Type 2 diabetes. “Strong positive trends in T2D risk were also observed across quartiles of consumption for both types of beverage … No association was observed for 100% fruit juice consumption,” reported the 2013 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.20

Intestinal Dysbiosis, Metabolic Derangement and Obesity

Artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota, according to a 2014 study in Nature. The researchers wrote, “our results link NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage … Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic [obesity] that they themselves were intended to fight.”21

A 2016 study in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism reported, “Aspartame intake significantly influenced the association between body mass index (BMI) and glucose tolerance… consumption of aspartame is associated with greater obesity-related impairments in glucose tolerance.”22

According to a 2014 rat study in PLoS ONE, “aspartame elevated fasting glucose levels and an insulin tolerance test showed aspartame to impair insulin-stimulated glucose disposal … Fecal analysis of gut bacterial composition showed aspartame to increase total bacteria…”23

Industry Science

Not all recent studies find a link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. Two industry-funded studies did not.

  • A 2014 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis concluded that “Findings from observational studies showed no association between LCS [low-calorie sweetener] intake and body weight or fat mass and a small positive association with BMI [body mass index]; however, data from RCTs [randomized controlled trials], which provide the highest quality of evidence for examining the potentially causal effects of LCS intake, indicate that substituting LCS options for their regular-calorie versions results in a modest weight loss and may be a useful dietary tool to improve compliance with weight loss or weight maintenance plans.” The authors “received funding to conduct this research from the North American Branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).”24

According to a 2010 article in Nature, ILSI is “largely funded by food, chemical and pharmaceutical companies.”25 See also US Right to Know fact sheet: ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for Food and Agrichemical Industries.

A series of stories published in UPI in 1987 by investigative reporter Greg Gordon describe ILSI’s involvement in directing research on aspartame toward studies likely to support the sweetener’s safety.

  • A 2014 study in the journal Obesity tested water against artificially sweetened beverages for a 12-week weight loss program, finding that “water is not superior to NNS [non-nutritive sweetened] beverages for weight loss during a comprehensive behavioral weight loss program.” The study was “fully funded by the American Beverage Association,”26 which is the main lobbying group for the soda industry.

There is strong evidence that industry-funded studies in biomedical research are less trustworthy than those funded independently. A 2007 PLOS Medicine study on industry support for biomedical research found that “Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health … scientific articles about commonly consumed beverages funded entirely by industry were approximately four to eight times more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the sponsors than articles without industry-related funding. Of particular interest, none of the interventional studies with all industry support had an unfavorable conclusion…”27

Is “Diet” Deceptive Marketing?

In April 2015, US Right to Know petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate the marketing and advertising practices of “diet” products that contain a chemical linked to weight gain.

We argued that the term “diet” appears to be deceptive, false and misleading in violation of section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The agencies have so far declined to act citing lack of resources and other priorities (see FDA and FTC responses).

“It’s regrettable that the FTC won’t act to halt the deceptions of the ‘diet’ soda industry. Ample scientific evidence links artificial sweeteners to weight gain, not weight loss,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “I do believe that ‘diet’ soda will go down in U.S. history as one of the greatest consumer frauds ever.”

News coverage:

USRTK press releases and posts:

Scientific References 

[1] Azad, Meghan B., et al. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. CMAJ July 17, 2017 vol. 189 no. 28 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390 (abstract / article)

[2] Swithers SE, “Artificial Sweeteners Produce the Counterintuitive Effect of Inducing Metabolic Derangements.” Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, July 10, 2013. 2013 Sep;24(9):431-41. PMID: 23850261. (abstract / article)

[3] Mattes RD, Popkin BM, “Nonnutritive Sweetener Consumption in Humans: Effects on Appetite and Food Intake and Their Putative Mechanisms.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 3, 2008. 2009 Jan;89(1):1-14. PMID: 19056571. (article)

[4] Yang Q, “Gain Weight by ‘Going Diet?’ Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. PMID: 20589192. (article)

[5] Brown RJ, de Banate MA, Rother KI, “Artificial Sweeteners: a Systematic Review of Metabolic Effects in Youth.” International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 2010 Aug;5(4):305-12. PMID: 20078374. (abstract / article)

[6] Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. “Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-Term Weight Gain.” Obesity, 2008 Aug;16(8):1894-900. PMID: 18535548. (abstract / article)

[7] Forshee RA, Storey ML, “Total Beverage Consumption and Beverage Choices Among Children and Adolescents.” International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2003 Jul;54(4):297-307. PMID: 12850891. (abstract)

[8] Blum JW, Jacobsen DJ, Donnelly JE, “Beverage Consumption Patterns in Elementary School Aged Children Across a Two-Year Period.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2005 Apr;24(2):93- 8. PMID: 15798075. (abstract)

[9] Berkey CS, Rockett HR, Field AE, Gillman MW, Colditz GA. “Sugar-Added Beverages and Adolescent Weight Change.”Obes Res. 2004 May;12(5):778-88. PMID: 15166298. (abstract / article)

[10] W Wulaningsih, M Van Hemelrijck, K K Tsilidis, I Tzoulaki, C Patel and S Rohrmann. “Investigating nutrition and lifestyle factors as determinants of abdominal obesity: an environment-wide study.” International Journal of Obesity (2017) 41, 340–347; doi:10.1038/ijo.2016.203; published online 6 December 2016 (abstract / article)

[11] Susan E. Swithers, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep; 24(9): 431–441.

[12] Yang Q, “Gain Weight by ‘Going Diet?’ Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. PMID: 20589192. (article)

[13] Yang Q, “Gain Weight by ‘Going Diet?’ Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. PMID: 20589192. (article)

[14] Yang Q, “Gain Weight by ‘Going Diet?’ Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. PMID: 20589192. (article)

[15] Bleich SN, Wolfson JA, Vine S, Wang YC, “Diet-Beverage Consumption and Caloric Intake Among US Adults, Overall and by Body Weight.” American Journal of Public Health, January 16, 2014. 2014 Mar;104(3):e72-8. PMID: 24432876. (abstract / article)

[16] Fowler S, Williams K, Hazuda H, “Diet Soda Intake Is Associated with Long-Term Increases in Waist Circumference in a Biethnic Cohort of Older Adults: The San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, March 17, 2015. (abstract / article)

[17] Suez J. et al., “Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota.” Nature, September 17, 2014. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521):181-6. PMID: 25231862 (abstract)

[18] Gul SS, Hamilton AR, Munoz AR, Phupitakphol T, Liu W, Hyoju SK, Economopoulos KP, Morrison S, Hu D, Zhang W, Gharedaghi MH, Huo H, Hamarneh SR, Hodin RA. “Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017 Jan;42(1):77-83. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346. Epub 2016 Nov 18. (abstract / article)

[19] Susan E. Swithers, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.” Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep; 24(9): 431–441. (article)

[20] Guy Fagherazzi, A Vilier, D Saes Sartorelli, M Lajous, B Balkau, F Clavel-Chapelon. “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale–European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013, Jan 30; doi: 10.3945/ ajcn.112.050997 ajcn.050997. (abstract/article)

[21] Suez J et al. “Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota.” Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521). PMID: 25231862. (abstract / article)

[22] Kuk JL, Brown RE. “Aspartame intake is associated with greater glucose intolerance in individuals with obesity.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jul;41(7):795-8. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0675. Epub 2016 May 24. (abstract)

[23] Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, Su J, Reimer RA, Vogel HJ, et al. (2014) Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109841. (article)

[24] Miller PE, Perez V, “Low-Calorie Sweeteners and Body Weight and Composition: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials and Prospective Cohort Studies.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 18, 2014. 2014 Sep;100(3):765-77. PMID: 24944060. (abstract / article)

[25] Declan Butler, “Food Agency Denies Conflict-of-Interest Claim.” Nature, October 5, 2010. (article)

[26] Peters JC et al., “The Effects of Water and Non-Nutritive Sweetened Beverages on Weight Loss During a 12-Week Weight Loss Treatment Program.” Obesity, 2014 Jun;22(6):1415-21. PMID: 24862170. (abstract / article)

[27] Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS. “Relationship Between Funding Source and Conclusion Among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles.” PLOS Medicine, 2007 Jan;4(1):e5. PMID: 17214504. (abstract / article)

What’s in Roundup? Internal EPA Documents Show Scramble for Data

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

As agrochemical giant Monsanto Co. faces a growing wave of U.S. lawsuits over its top-selling Roundup herbicide line, among its key defense arguments is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long backed the safety of the weed-killing products.

And indeed, the EPA has been a stalwart supporter of Monsanto Co.’s claims of safety, assuring the public that there is nothing to fear from the company’s cocktail of chemicals. But internal agency documents, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, indicate that as recently as last year, the agency had holes in its data files when it comes to the actual Roundup formulations used by consumers, farmers and others around the world. The documents also raise questions about how and why regulators for years have failed to require robust testing on what is the world’s most widely used weed killer.

The EPA documents show that only a little more than a year ago, in March and April of 2016, EPA officials were scrambling to gather data on ingredients Monsanto has commonly used to formulate its herbicide products. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup brands as well as hundreds of other herbicides, and the agency has a deep database of studies submitted by Monsanto regarding that specific chemical. But in the EPA records from 2016, the agency is seen urgently asking Monsanto for any studies it could provide analyzing the safety of its fully formulated products and seeking to understand the make-up of formulations used for decades. Even though Monsanto has been selling Roundup herbicides for more than 40 years, the internal agency documents indicate the agency had only sparse information about those formulations.

The EPA’s interest in scrutinizing formulations came after the agency was poised to issue an updated favorable risk assessment of glyphosate in 2015. The agency only delayed finalizing that assessment after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported in 2015 that there was enough peer-reviewed, published research to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. IARC also noted in its report that there was research showing risks with formulations.

The EPA appeared to be playing catch-up in March of last year when agency officials requested information from Monsanto on the inert ingredients in popular U.S. and European formulations of glyphosate used in “the present day and also dating back to the 80s.” EPA was particularly interested in “information on how glyphosate formulations have changed over time in the last 20-30 years.”

“EPA suggested that Monsanto provide in writing any information that documents the changes of glyphosate formulations over time and across the globe.” 4/5/16

The EPA records also show a certain level of double-talk about that lack of data. Even as the agency was working to gather details on the Roundup formulations, the agency was at the same time assuring the public that there was no reason for concern because the EPA had the information needed to gauge the safety of those formulations.

Consider this statement from the agency:

“Often, glyphosate products contain water, dyes, and/or surfactants that help facilitate movement of glyphosate into the plant…” EPA Chemical Review Manager Khue Nguyen wrote in January 2016 to an 83-year-old homeowner who had read about Roundup concerns and written to the agency seeking answers. “While manufacturers of pesticide products do not always disclose all ‘other ingredients’ on their labels … they are required to disclose those ingredients to EPA. Inert ingredients in a product such as Roundup are not of concern for the consumer when pesticide products are used according to the label.”

Contrast those public assurances about the EPA’s knowledge of Roundup ingredients with an internal discussion documented by Nguyen three months later. In an email dated April 6, 2016, Nguyen reminded five Monsanto executives that the EPA had a “time sensitive” information request—it needed data, and the notes attached to the email show a particular need for data on glyphosate formulations:

“In an effort to resolve questions about the potential toxicity of glyphosate, glyphosate formulations, and any co-formulants (inert ingredients and surfactants), EPA was interested in any data or information Monsanto may have on how the formulations may differ from data on the active ingredient and surfactants independently of one another,” the notes attached to Nguyen’s email state. The notes go on to ask for information about changes in Monsanto’s Roundup formulation “over the years.”

The notes state “Monsanto indicated that up until 2000, nearly all glyphosate products on the market were its Roundup formulation which used some form of tallow amine as a surfactant. Afterwards, the properties of surfactants used and the ratio of surfactant to active ingredient were changed in most formulations… EPA suggested that Monsanto provide in writing any information that documents the changes of glyphosate formulations over time and across the globe.”

Subsequent to that meeting, Monsanto did send over some data, and in a follow-up email dated April 18, 2016, an EPA scientist sought clarification about what to look for. “Just to be clear on our strategy here, we want to see which of these we have or don’t have, and we also want to see if there are any formulation studies that will help our analysis. Does that sound right?”

It is heartening that EPA is starting to pay attention to questions about the safety of Roundup formulations, but such evaluations are long overdue and the agency’s public assurances of safety despite the lack of data is “such hypocrisy,” said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with the Consumers Union. “And it’s an admission that this is a big problem.”

These mixtures, or formulations, have raised concerns with certain independent scientists who say laboratory studies show the combinations of glyphosate with other substances used in Roundup are more toxic that glyphosate alone, and can possibly cause cancer or other health problems. Some research has indicated the formulations can be endocrine disruptors, meaning they have the potential to trigger serious diseases such as cancers, reproductive and developmental problems, and birth defects.

The EPA’s knowledge—or lack thereof—about formulated Roundup products is also potentially important to litigation pending against Monsanto. Thousands of people around the United States are suing the chemical company, alleging that not only did Roundup exposure cause them or their loved ones to get cancer, but that Monsanto knew the Roundup formulations could be harmful but covered up the evidence. They also allege that certain EPA officials colluded with Monsanto in the handling of safety assessments, and the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has confirmed it is probing those concerns.

One ingredient traditionally used in Roundup has been the focus of particular scrutiny as some research has shown that this added ingredient, polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), can be extremely damaging to human cells. POEA is a surfactant that helps glyphosate adhere to the leaves of plants. European regulators became so concerned with POEA that in 2016 they agreed to ban it from use as a co-formulant in glyphosate-based herbicides after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in a 2015 report, said there was insufficient data available to perform a risk assessment on POEA. EFSA stated: “Its genotoxicity, long term toxicity/carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential should be further clarified.”

In part of the April 18, 2016 email string with the EPA, a Monsanto executive confirmed the widespread use of POEA in its products, telling the EPA “the surfactant system used almost exclusively in Roundup agricultural herbicide formulations globally throughout these two decades (the 1980s and 1990s) contained a polyethoxylated tallow amine surfactant…”

Monsanto says on its website that tallowamine-based products “do not pose an imminent risk for human health when used according to instructions” and points out that in 2009 the EPA exempted the surfactant from legal limitations on residues in food, because there “is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result to the general population…”

Still, the company itself has admitted a lack of extensive safety tests on its formulated products. In an internal Monsanto email from December 2010, a Monsanto chemistry regulatory affairs manager noted that “with regards to the carcinogenicity of our formulations we don’t have such testing on them directly…” The manager went on to explain that the company has “extensive testing” on glyphosate and “some extensive tox testing” on the surfactant and should be able to address questions about the safety of its formulations “in a confident manner.” That email and hundreds of others were obtained by plaintiffs as part of discovery in the lawsuits against Monsanto.

In a 2002 email also obtained as part of discovery in the court case, a Monsanto scientist writes to a colleague, “we are in pretty good shape with glyphosate but vulnerable with surfactants. What I’ve been hearing from you is that this continues to be the case with these studies – Glyphosate is OK but the formulated product (and thus the surfactant) does the damage.” In another 2002 email between the same Monsanto colleagues, the scientist writes, “Even though no testing requirements have been implemented for several years now, this damn endocrine crap just doesn’t go away, does it.”

And in a 2003 email, a Monsanto toxicologist writes, “you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient. We can make that statement about glyphosate and can infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”

An EPA spokesman confirmed that the agency does not “routinely require long-term toxicity studies for pesticide product formulations” as it does for active ingredients like glyphosate. He added, however, that all inert ingredients in pesticide products, must be approved for use by EPA and “each component of an inert mixture must be supported by a battery of toxicity data and must be approved for use by EPA.”

Further, the EPA spokesman said, “If there are data to indicate risk for a formulated mixture, EPA evaluates the potential effects in our risk assessments. The human health risk assessment process is conservative… thus ensuring that when a pesticide is used according to the label, people are well protected.”

The EPA’s recent interest in pursuing questions about formulated glyphosate products was also seen in September 2016, when the agency stated that it was collaborating with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop a research plan that would evaluate “the role of glyphosate in product formulations and the differences in formulation toxicity.” The agency acknowledged that “currently, the publicly available information regarding non-cancer endpoints for glyphosate and glyphosate formulations is limited.”

The status of EPA’s involvement in that collaboration is unknown but the NTP confirms on its website that it is “undertaking additional research to investigate the potential genetic and mechanistic toxicity of glyphosate and glyphosate formulations.”

Still, CropLife America, the lobbying group for Monsanto and other agrochemical industry players, have made it clear such an inquiry is not welcomed. In a letter dated October 2016, CropLife questioned “why EPA would collaborate and develop a research program with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) without input from the registrant.” That registrant, Monsanto, “would be the appropriate source” for data EPA might need, CropLife wrote.

This story was originally published by EcoWatch.

Reuters’ Kate Kelland IARC Story Promotes False Narrative

Print Email Share Tweet

Update: For a broader analysis of Kate Kelland’s reporting on IARC and glyphosate, see Stacy Malkan’s July 24 story in FAIR: Reuters vs. UN Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?

Prepared by Carey Gillam and originally posted June 28.

A June 14 Reuters article authored by Kate Kelland, headlined “The WHO’s cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence,” wrongly accused a cancer scientist of withholding important data in the safety assessment of glyphosate conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Kelland’s story contains factual errors and states conclusions that are contradicted by a full reading of the documents she cited as primary sources. It is notable that Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy in interpreting them. The primary source document clearly contradicts the premise of Kelland’s story. Additional documents her story referenced, but also did not link to, can be found at the end of this post.

Background: The Reuters story was one in a series of critical pieces the news agency has published about IARC that Kelland wrote after IARC classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. Glyphosate is a highly profitable chemical herbicide used as the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killing products, as well as hundreds of other products sold around the world. The IARC classification triggered mass litigation in the United States brought by people alleging their cancers were caused by Roundup, and prompted the European Union and U.S. regulators to deepen their evaluation of the chemical. In response to the IARC classification, and as a means of defending itself against the litigation and shoring up regulatory support, Monsanto has lodged multiple complaints against IARC seeking to undermine IARC’s credibility. The June 14 Kelland story, which quoted a top Monsanto “strategy” executive, furthered those strategic efforts and has been touted by Monsanto and others in the chemical industry as proof that the IARC classification was flawed.

Consider:

  • A deposition of scientist Aaron Blair, a draft abstract and email communication Kelland references in her story as “court documents” were not in fact court documents but were documents created and obtained as part of discovery in the multidistrict litigation brought by the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto. The documents were held in the possession of Monsanto’s legal team as well as plaintiffs’ legal team. See docket U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, lead case 3:16-md-02741-VC. If Monsanto or a surrogate provided the documents to Kelland, such sourcing should have been cited. Given that the documents were not obtained through the court, as Kelland’s story implies, it seems apparent Monsanto or surrogates planted the storyline and provided Kelland with the documents, or at least selected parts of the documents, along with its assessment of them.
  • Kelland’s article provides commentary and an interpretation of the deposition from Bob Tarone, whom Kelland describes as “independent of Monsanto.” Yet information provided by IARC establishes that Tarone has acted as a paid consultant to Monsanto on its efforts to discredit IARC.
  • Reuters teased the story with this statement: “The scientist leading that review knew of fresh data showing no cancer link – but he never mentioned it and the agency did not take it into account.” Kelland implied that Dr. Blair was intentionally hiding critical information. Yet the deposition shows that Blair testified that the data in question was “not ready” to submit to a journal for publication and would not be allowed for consideration by IARC because it had not been finished and published. Much of the data was gathered as part of a broad U.S. Agricultural Health Study and would have been added onto several years of previously published information from the AHS that showed no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A Monsanto lawyer questioned Blair about why the data wasn’t published in time to be considered by IARC, saying: “You decided, for whatever reason, that that data was not going to be published at that time, and therefore was not considered by IARC, correct?” Blair replied: “No. Again you foul up the process.” “What we decided was the work that we were doing on these different studies were not yet — were not yet ready to submit to journals.  Even after you decide to submit them to journals for review, you don’t decide when it gets published.” (Blair deposition transcript page 259) Blair also said to the Monsanto attorney: “What is irresponsible is to rush something out that’s not fully analyzed or thought out” (page 204).
  • Blair also testified that some data from the unfinished, unpublished AHS was “not statistically significant” (page 173 of deposition). Blair also testified in that deposition about data showing strong connections between glyphosate and NHL that also was not disclosed to IARC because it was not published.
  • Blair testified that some data from a North American Pooled Project study showed a very strong association with NHL and glyphosate, with a doubling and tripling of risk associated with the pesticide seen in people who used glyphosate more than twice a year. Just as the AHS data, this data was also not published or given to IARC (pages 274-283 of Blair deposition).
  • Kelland’s article also states: “Blair also said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis. He said it would have made it less likely that glyphosate would meet the agency’s criteria for being classed as ‘probably carcinogenic.’”  That testimony (on pages 177-189 of deposition) does not support those statements at all.  Blair ultimately says “probably” to questioning from Monsanto’s attorney asking if the 2013 AHS data had been included in a meta-analysis of epidemiology data considered by IARC, if that “would have lowered the meta-relative risk for glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma even further…” Kelland’s story also leaves the impression that this unpublished epidemiology data from an unfinished study would have been a game-changer for IARC. In fact, reading the deposition in full, and comparing it to IARC’s report on glyphosate, underscores how false and misleading that notion is.  Blair testified only to epidemiology data and IARC had already deemed the epidemiology evidence that it did see as “limited.” Its classification of glyphosate saw significance in the animal (toxicology) data it reviewed, deeming it “sufficient.”
  • Kelland ignores important portions of the Blair deposition specific to a published 2003 study that found “there was over a doubling of the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for people who had been exposed to glyphosate” (pages 54-55 of the deposition).
  • Kelland ignores testimony in the Blair deposition regarding a “300 percent increased risk” for cancer in Swedish research (page 60 of deposition).
  • Reading through the entire deposition shows that Blair testified as to many examples of studies showing a positive association between glyphosate and cancer, all of which Kelland ignored.
  • Kelland writes that in his legal testimony, Blair also described the AHS as “powerful” and agreed the data showed no link to cancer. She implied he was speaking of the specific unpublished 2013 data on NHL and glyphosate that is a tiny subset of information obtained from the AHS, when in fact the testimony shows he was speaking of the larger AHS umbrella of work, which has been tracking farm families and collecting data on dozens of pesticides for several years. What Blair actually said of the broad AHS was this: “ “It’s — it’s a powerful study. And it has advantages. I’m not sure I would say it is the most powerful, but it is a powerful study.” (page 286 of deposition)
    • Furthermore, when speaking directly of the 2013 AHS data on glyphosate and NHL, Blair confirmed that the unpublished data needed “cautious interpretation” given the number of exposed cases in subgroups was “relatively small” (page 289).
  • Kelland states “IARC told Reuters that, despite the existence of fresh data about glyphosate, it was sticking with its findings,” suggesting a cavalier attitude. Such a statement is entirely misleading. What IARC in fact said was its practice is not to consider unpublished findings and that it can re-evaluate substances when a significant body of new data is published in literature.

See also June 19, 2017 story by Carey Gillam, Monsanto Spin Doctors Target Cancer Scientist In Flawed Reuters Story.

Related Documents

Videotaped deposition of Aaron Earl Blair, Ph.D., March 20, 2017

Exhibit #1

Exhibit #2

Exhibit #3

Exhibit #4

Exhibit #5

Exhibit #6

Exhibit #7

Exhibit #9

Exhibit #10

Exhibit #11

Exhibit #12

Exhibit #13

Exhibit #14

Exhibit #15

Exhibit #16

Exhibit #17

Exhibit #18

Exhibit #19A

Exhibit #19B

Exhibit #20

Exhibit #21

Exhibit #22

Exhibit #23

Exhibit #24

Exhibit #25

Exhibit #26

Exhibit #27

Exhibit #28

Does Science Media Centre Promote Corporate Views of Science?

Print Email Share Tweet

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies.

This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a charge SMC denies.

Update: See July 24 story in FAIR, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?” Analysis of Kate Kelland’s coverage of IARC and close ties to Science Media Centre.

Key facts

The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet.

According to the group’s 2002 founding report, SMC was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science in the wake of media controversies over mad cow disease, GMOs and the MMR vaccine;
  • a collapse of respect for authority and expertise;
  • a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage; and
  • the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to get their case across.

Independent SMCs that share the same charter as the original now operate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, and SMCs are being planned in Brussels and the United States.

The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group sometimes wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign that shifted coverage away from ethical concerns to the benefits of the embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.

SMC says it is “committed to reflecting the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, and one of our main aims is that the news media should better represent mainstream science.”

SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

“Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review

“Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,” Ewen Callway, Nature

“A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, Senior Lecturer and Director of MA in Science Journalism, City University London

“The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, Professor of Sociology, University of Bath, United Kingdom

“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hopper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch, PhD

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations

“The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, Guardian

SMC Funding

SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.

SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”

By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media, especially when these big controversial stories were breaking,” Fox said in the video.

SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories that now regularly hit the headlines,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report on Science and Society – describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended an initiative on the interface between science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” prepared by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Center (SIRC) – recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
  • 2002 SMC Consultation Report – describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed the approaches SMC would use to “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords to meet the ‘great challenge’ of adapting science to frontline news.”

The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” Wakeford quoted two politicians involved in the SMC effort:

“As (Lord Melvyn) Bragg warned, ‘if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost.’ Advocate of GM crops, Lord (Dick) Taverne, argues that the media’s ‘sloppiness’ on issues of GM was now ‘undermining the health of our democracy.’

Before you can say ‘freedom of the press,’ a new Code of Practice has already been endorsed by Lord Wakeham’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”

SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

Sense About Science –  a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice guidelines.

A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.”

Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and past public relations efforts:

According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.

As its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.

Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.

Revolutionary Communist Roots

The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.

Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.)

A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”

“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:

“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”

Tactics

The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet.

SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:

  1. Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes from experts: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
  2. Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
  3. Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda by bringing new science or evidence to journalists” on a wide range of controversial topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.

Examples of influence and bias

Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on certain controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.

Lacking diverse perspectives

Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:

  • 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
  • 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
    • Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
    • Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.

“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.

Experts aren’t always scientists

David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:

  • Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
  • Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
  • There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”

“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.

Strategic triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.

Williams found:

  • More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
  • By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.

“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:

“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said.  But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.

Industry views on fracking

According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”

“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, reported evidence that SMC promoted the views of certain psychiatrists while ignoring other evidence that contradicted the psychiatrists’ theory, in an effort to discredit people with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.”

“An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”

Pro GMO

SMC has been critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions that they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.

“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.

Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:

SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.

The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.

Media Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”

  • CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
  • CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
  • CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”

Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”

Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”

FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”

SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb

PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”

On related group Sense About Science:

The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”

USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry

Controversy, questions surround California’s listing of weed killer as cancer cause

Print Email Share Tweet

By Carey Gillam

This article originally appeared in Environmental Health News on July 7, 2017.

California’s official listing today of the world’s most widely used weed killer as a known carcinogen marks a milestone in what has been years of debate over the safety of the pesticide called glyphosate. But it by no means marks the end of controversy over the chemical, or arguments over what warnings – if any – should be placed on an herbicide that is a mainstay for U.S. farming and for maintaining household lawns and gardens, city parks and school grounds.

Officials with California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) have until early April to work out guidelines for glyphosate product warnings before requirements for such warnings take effect in July 2018. At the same time, OEHHA continues to face a court challenge from Monsanto Co., which introduced glyphosate more than 40 years ago, and makes billions of dollars off glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides. The chemical, now off patent, is also active in hundreds of other herbicide products.

“We will continue to aggressively challenge this improper decision.”-Monsanto 

“This is not the final step in the process… We will continue to aggressively challenge this improper decision,” Monsanto said in a statement.

California’s move to list glyphosate as a known carcinogen was triggered by the March 2015 decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Under a state law known as Proposition 65, California is required to add a chemical to a list of known cancer-causing substances if it garners such a classification by IARC. The law then requires businesses to notify Californians about significant amounts of listed chemicals in products or released into the environment.

A particularly contentious part of the ongoing battle now surrounds what level of exposure California might allow without any warnings. The state has proposed what some see as an overly generous “safe harbor” or “No Significant Risk Level” (NSRL) for glyphosate at 1100 micrograms a day, meaning exposure levels and discharges into drinking water sources below that benchmark would be exempt from warning requirements.

That level is significantly higher than amounts that have been shown to have cancer-causing effects in several animal studies, however. Critics point to studies that have shown tumor developments in animals at doses of glyphosate lower than 850 mg/kg/day and even lower than 250 mg/kg/day.

“That NSRL would not be sufficiently health protective… We strongly urge OEHHA to uphold its statutory purpose to protect humans from the harmful impacts of glyphosate and lower the NSRL…” a group of scientists and environmental and food safety advocates told OEHHA in a letter.

Nathan Donley, Senior Scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the research OEHHA relied on showed an “uncharacteristic” dose response to glyphosate, and if OEHHA would take other studies into account it would result in a dramatic lowering of the NSRL.

“The implications are enormous and it’s incredibly important that they get this right,” he said.

Adding intrigue to the debate, lawyers for scores of cancer victims currently suing Monsanto over Roundup have turned up documents showing that before California regulators set the NSRL they met privately with Monsanto. Documents obtained from OEHHA include notes from one October 7, 2015 meeting between OEHHA staff and Monsanto officials and indicate the parties discussed the company’s ideas about an calculating an NSRL and what studies should be looked at for development of that NSRL.

Among the attendees listed on an OEHHA memo were the agency’s Chief Deputy Director Allan Hirsch, Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs Melanie Marty, and Chief Counsel Carol Monahan-Cummings. The handwritten notes indicate that there was some discussion of what has long been a Monsanto talking point on glyphosate – that if glyphosate isn’t used, other, more-toxic herbicides might be used instead.

California attorney Pedram Esfandiary, whose firm is representing multiple cancer victims suing Monsanto, also believes California regulators have not incorporated adequate study data into their calculation of the NSRL. He said evidence developed through the litigation pending in federal court against Monsanto shows the company has withheld important information regarding glyphosate carcinogenicity.

Some documents obtained through the litigation have already prompted an investigation by the inspector general for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into whether or not an EPA official engaged in collusion with Monsanto regarding the safety assessment of glyphosate. And there are many more relevant documents the lawyers are working to unseal now.

“Additional documents pertinent to the Safe Harbor NSRL and Roundup/glyphosate carcinogenicity are presently still under seal and it is strongly recommended that OEHHA obtain access to such documents before OEHHA takes the potentially precarious step of issuing an NSRL of 1100 micrograms,” Esfandiary and three other attorneys involved in the case said in a letter to OEHHA. “The known dangers of glyphosate warrant extensive investigation before Californians are exposed to any amount…”

OEHHA spokesman Sam Delson defended the agency’s proposed NSRL but said it is possible that OEHHA could change the NSRL for glyphosate as the agency reviews the input it has received from outside parties. NSRLs are developed to determine the level of exposure from an individual source that would cause a 1-in-100,000 lifetime cancer risk.

“We developed the proposed NSRL based on the best scientific information available to us. Neither Monsanto nor any other group or individual influenced the proposed NSRL beyond submitting comments or information for our consideration.” He noted that Monsanto opposes the proposed NSRL. Indeed, at a recent public hearing Monsanto representatives said the only acceptable NSRL for glyphosate would be “infinity.”

Several of the state’s Prop. 65 listings have drawn controversy and litigation but none have created the uproar that glyphosate has, according to Delson. “The decision to list glyphosate as a cancer cause has drawn by far the largest number of written comments ever received,” he said. More than 10,600 comments were submitted to OEHHA regarding the glyphosate listing and the NSRL issue.

The deadline for adoption of the NSRL is early April, Delson said. The goal is to have the NSRL finalized before the warning requirement takes effect in July 2018 so that companies will be able to determine whether they need to provide warnings and/or reformulate products in ways that allow them to avoid the need for warnings. Food products containing glyphosate residues that cause an exposure exceeding the final NSRL would be included in the warning requirement, Delson said.

As recently as June 20, Monsanto was continuing to press OEHHA to drop or delay the glyphosate listing, arguing that the IARC classification was invalid. OEHHA denied the request, clearing the way for the July 7 listing.

The company also continues to press the issue in the courts; it’s lawsuit against OEHHA was dismissed by a Fresno County Superior Court judge in March but Monsanto appealed the dismissal and that appeal is still pending. The company’s effort to block the listing while the appeal is pending failed.

Carey Gillam is the Research Director at U.S. Right to Know and a veteran journalist who specializes in coverage of food, agriculture and environmental issues.

Trump’s New CDC Pick Boosts Agency’s Ties To Coca Cola

Print Email Share Tweet

See also:

  • New York Times, by Sheila Kaplan, 7/22/2017: “New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight”
  • Forbes, Part 2 by Rob Waters, “The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence”

By Rob Waters

Part 1 of 2 stories 

For many years, The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest seller of sugary drinks, has sought to influence health policy and public opinion by forging ties with influential scientists and officials, including at the nation’s top public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Now the Trump administration has appointed a new CDC chief, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who, as Georgia public health commissioner for the past six years, partnered with Coke to run a program against child obesity. Coca-Cola KO +0.00% gave $1 million to Georgia SHAPE, which seeks to increase physical activity in schools but is silent about reducing soda consumption, even though studies have found that high sugar intake, especially in liquid form, is a driver of obesity and diabetes, as well as cancer and heart disease.

In a 2013 press conference, Fitzgerald praised Coke for its “generous award.” She wrote a commentary about the obesity epidemic for Coca-Cola’s website declaring the need to “get our students moving.” And in an interview with a local TV station, she made clear her priorities. Georgia SHAPE, she said, is “going to concentrate on what you should eat”—while saying nothing about what you shouldn’t.

The agency Fitzgerald will now run already had cozy relationships with Coca-Cola. These connections can be seen in emails that circulated between Coke executives, CDC officials and a network of people from universities and industry-backed organizations funded by companies including Coke, Nestlé, Mars Inc. and Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft. The emails, released by the CDC in response to public records requests submitted by U.S. Right to Know, are chatty, sometimes plaintive, often affectionate and occasionally angry and urgent.

In an October 2015 email, Barbara Bowman, a CDC official who has since resigned, offers her appreciation to former Coca-Cola executive Alex Malaspina for a recent dinner. “What a lovely time we had on Saturday nights, many thanks, Alex, for your hospitality.”

In another 2015 email to a group of scientists, all of whom have received research funding from Coca-Cola or other industry-backed organizations, Malaspina asks for “any ideas on how we can counteract” recommendations from a committee of experts advising the U.S. government. The committee wants the government to urge Americans to reduce their consumption of sugar, meat and sodium. In his email, Malaspina dismisses these suggestions as “not based on science.”

And in another note, Coca-Cola executive Rhona Applebaum writes to a CDC official and a Louisiana State University researcher who is leading a large study on child obesity. She has just learned that Mexico is declining to participate in the study because Coke is funding it, and she’s peeved. “So if good scientists take $$$ from Coke–what–they’re corrupted?” she writes.

‘Why is Coke talking to CDC?’

The emails provide a glimpse of the ways that Coca-Cola use connections forged with health officials and scientists to influence policy-makers and journalists. The efforts come at the expense of public health, according to academic researchers who questioned the appropriateness of contacts between Coke and CDC.

“Why is Coke talking to CDC at all? Why is there any line of communication?” asked Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco who researches the effects of sugar consumption on children and adults. “The contact is completely inappropriate and they’re obviously trying to use it to exert influence on a government agency.”

Many of the emails were not directly addressed to anyone at CDC, yet were turned over by the agency to comply with public records requests. This suggests some CDC officials were sent bcc:’s or blind copies.

The emails offer a look at the global network created by Malaspina, a former senior vice president of external affairs at Coca-Cola. The network includes:

  • The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a global organization whose members, according to its website “are companies from the food, agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology and supporting industries.” Coca-Cola was among ILSI’s original funders and Malaspina was its founding president. A budget document obtained by US Right to Know suggests that Coca-Cola gave ILSI $167,000 in 2012 and 2013.
  • The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a Washington-based nonprofit supported by food companies and trade associations including Coca-Cola, the American Beverage Association, the Hershey Company and Cargill Inc. According to its website, IFIC works to “effectively communicate science-based information” about food and “helps journalists and bloggers writing about health, nutrition and food safety.”
  • An assortment of academic scientists with a history of conducting research sponsored by Coca-Cola or ILSI.

Malaspina, who remained involved with Coca-Cola and ILSI after leaving the soda company, emerges in the emails as a principal connecting node in the network. For example, after asking for advice on how to discredit the 2015 recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, he praises the Food Council’s efforts to influence reporters writing about them.

‘Coming Through for Industry’

The Council has just held a media call with 40 reporters to criticize the committee’s recommendations, which IFIC viewed as “demonizing” sugar, meat and potatoes. After the media call, IFIC representatives boasted in an internal memo that they’d influenced the coverage of a number of reporters. Malaspina receives a copy of the memo and forwards it to his colleagues at Coke and his contacts at the CDC.

“IFIC is coming through for industry,” Malaspina writes.

A spokeswoman for the CDC, Kathy Harben, said in an email that her agency “works with the private sector because public-private partnerships advance CDC’s mission of protecting Americans. CDC ensures that, when we engage with the private sector, we are good stewards of the funds entrusted to us and maintain our scientific integrity by participating in a conflict of interest review process that is intended to be both rigorous and transparent.”

Financial ties and questionable contacts between Coca-Cola, academic researchers and the CDC have been exposed in several reports in the past two years.

‘Energy Balance Network’

In 2015, the New York Times and later the Associated Press reported that Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief health and science officer, had orchestrated grants to the University of Colorado and the University of South Carolina to start a nonprofit group, the Global Energy Balance Network, that would “inject sanity and reason” into discussions about obesity.

The goal was to push the idea that weight gain is as much related to people’s inadequate physical activity as to their consumption of sugar and calories. After Coca-Cola’s funding was exposed, the energy balance network was disbanded and the University of Colorado announced it would return $1 million to Coke. Applebaum retired three months after the Times story.

Last year, Barbara Bowman announced her retirementfrom the CDC two days after US Right to Know reported that she had advised Malaspina on ways to influence the World Health Organization and its Director-General Margaret Chan. The WHO had just issued guidelinesrecommending greatly reduced consumption of sugar, and Malaspina considered these a “threat to our business.”

Other records obtained last year by US Right to Know show that Michael Pratt, senior advisor for global health in the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, had conducted research funded by Coca-Cola and been an advisor to ILSI.

‘We’ll Do Better’

In August 2015, two weeks after the Times story, Coca-Cola Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “We’ll Do Better” that the company’s funding of scientific research had, in many cases, “served only to create more confusion and mistrust.” The company later disclosed that from 2010 to the end of last year, it had spent $138 million funding outside researchers and health programs and created a “transparency” website listing recipients of its funding.

Coca-Cola says it now supports the WHO recommendations that Malaspina wanted to discredit — that people limit their sugar intake to 10% of the calories they consume each day. “We’ve begun our journey towards that goal as we evolve our business strategy to become a total beverage company,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Katherine Schermerhorn said in an email.

Coca-Cola also pledged to provide no more than 50% of the cost of any scientific research. Will that make a difference in the outcome of the studies? Coca-Cola critics are skeptical, noting that previous studies funded by Coke minimized the negative health impacts of sugar-sweetened or diet beverages. I’ll take a closer look tomorrow at some of the studies that Coke funded – and then passed on to its contacts at the CDC.

Rob Waters is a health and science writer based in Berkeley, California and an investigative reporter for US Right to Know. This story originally appeared in Forbes on July 10.

Food Evolution GMO Film Serves Up Chemical Industry Agenda

Print Email Share Tweet

This post is being updated with reviews of Food Evolution, and see below for USRTK review.

Letter from 45 academics: “Food Evolution deserves to be called out for what it is: a piece of propaganda.”

NYU Professor Marion Nestle: Food Evolution is a “slick piece of GMO industry propaganda.”

  • “I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film. The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not. I am often interviewed and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context. This film is one of those rare exceptions.”
  • Follow-up post by Prof. Nestle. “A win for GMO Trolls: this blog no longer accepts comments.”

UC Berkeley Professor Michael Pollan:My experience and take much the same” and “This movie is funded by industry.”

UC Berkeley Associate Professor Alastair Iles: No evolution in thinking in Food Evolution

UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri: “Food Evolution is propaganda for public support of GMOs

Vice, by Alex Swerdloff: “Experts Call It Propaganda

Alternet, by Stacy Malkan: “Neil deGrasse Tyson Fans Deserve More than Twisted Tale on GMOs

By Stacy Malkan 

Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That’s the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.

That the film’s intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.

IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group’s president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT’s President-Elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.

IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view.

The film’s credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the science and scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn’t fit that agenda.

The Monsanto Science Treatment

The clearest example of the scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weed killer chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90% of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.

Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: a farmer says glyphosate has “very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt,” and Monsanto’s Robb Fraley – in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer – tells her that’s all bad science, “it’s pseudoscience.”

All science raising concerns about glyphosate is “pseudoscience,” says Monsanto.

There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide.

There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California’s decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.

Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full Monsanto science treatment: any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.

Double Standards in Science and Transparency

Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.

In one scene, the film’s main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.

Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini – which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn – was “retracted, retracted, retracted!”

The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.

The “Africa Needs GMOs” Narrative

In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now – primarily to convey herbicide tolerance – we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.

With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.

Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.

The film is “fundamentally dishonest.”

Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools “have been remarkable,” according to the UN.

The solution doesn’t warrant a mention in Food Evolution.

“It’s fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, “while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn’t involve selling a product to make money.

Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?

Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by US Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto’s desire for a film that sounds surpassingly similar to the one Kennedy created.

Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote in Dec. 2013 to a group of PR advisors, “there is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was the Monsanto’s participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase.”

He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had “gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get” (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about “anti-food activism” at IFT’s 2012 annual meeting.

Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel – who had discussed with Sachs “the downsides of a film funded by the ‘Big 6’” and suggested “what would matter more than their money is their participation” – was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.

In reaction to the emails, Kennedy wrote on Twitter: “@foodevomovie has had ZERO $ or INPUT from #Monsanto. We are fully transparent & happy 2 have fact-based dialogue.”

He said in an interview, “that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn’t even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013.”

The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel “was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people.”

Sneak Peek Behind the Scenes

Another email exchange obtained by US Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy’s search for examples to feature for “us/developing world need GMO.”

“Any other ‘us/developing world need GMO’ you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintakus lettuce?” Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … “and then button with Golden Rice.”

When Kennedy pushed for “the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries,” Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, “Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation.”

The film’s frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn’t mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn’t available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn’t work as well in the field as existing rice strains.

What is propaganda?

In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It’s a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.

The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in this 2-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.

“How do we determine what is propaganda?” Kennedy asked. “I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me.”

This review originally appeared in Huffington Post and has been reprinted in Alternet. 

Top Findings of the U.S. Right To Know Investigations

Print Email Share Tweet

Documents obtained by USRTK offer a rare look into the secrets of food and chemical corporations

Since 2015, U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog group, has obtained thousands of pages of documents revealing – for the first time – hidden industry payments and secret collaborations that undermine our nation’s scientific, academic, political and regulatory institutions.

The USRTK investigations have unearthed important documents about Monsanto and the agrichemical industry and Coca-Cola and the beverage industry — along with the PR operatives, front groups and third-party allies that assist these industries. Together, these documents demonstrate the strategies and tactics these organizations employ to maximize industry profits at the expense of public health.

Here are some of key findings and articles from the USRTK investigations so far.

Undisclosed collaborations between academics and the agrichemical industry:

Corporate influence on journalists, science and regulatory institutions:

Breaking news about chemicals in our food:

This fall, Island Press will publish Carey Gillam’s book on glyphosate, titled Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science.

USRTK is also posting the “Monsanto Papers on our website, including court documents, news and analysis of the litigation against Monsanto by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Third-party messengers/front groups that lobby and write propaganda for the food and chemical corporations:

To receive updates on the US Right to Know investigation, you can sign up to receive our newsletter. Please also consider making a donation to keep our investigation cooking.

Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide

Print Email Share Tweet

Glyphosate is a synthetic herbicide patented in 1974 by the Monsanto Company, and now manufactured and sold by many companies in hundreds of products around the world. Glyphosate is best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup branded herbicides.

Here are some key facts about glyphosate:

Most Widely Used Pesticide 

According to a February 2016 study in Environmental Sciences Europe, glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide. “In the U.S., no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use,” according to the study. Findings include:

  • Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.
  • Worldwide 9.4 million tons of the chemical has been sprayed on fields – enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.
  • Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.

Cancer Concerns

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The team of international scientists found there was a particularly strong link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

On March 28, 2017, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment confirmed that it would add glyphosate to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. Monsanto sued to block the action but the case was dismissed.

The EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) in December 2016 to receive expert feedback from independent scientists about the assessment and the conclusion contained in the issue paper. The panel members were divided in their assessment of EPA’s work, with some finding the EPA erred in how it evaluated certain research and reached its conclusion. The EPA’s final report on glyphosate is scheduled to be released before the end of 2017.

According to an internal EPA document, two EPA departments disagreed with each other about glyphosate safety. The Office of Research and Development’s epidemiologists said the Office of Pesticide Programs had not followed proper agency protocol in determining glyphosate was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have said glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. A March 2017 report by environmental and consumer groups argues that regulators relied improperly on research that was directed and manipulated by the chemical industry.

The World Health Organization Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues also cleared glyphosate as unlikely to pose a risk to humans, although that group was tarnished by conflicts of interest regarding ties to the International Life Sciences Institute, a food industry front group.

Cancer Lawsuits

More than 50 lawsuits against Monsanto Co. are pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, filed by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks. The litigation has been consolidated as multidistrict litigation (MDL) for more efficient processing. Several hundred similar actions are pending in state courts.

In March 2017, the federal court judge overseeing the MDL unsealed some internal Monsanto documents that raised new questions about Monsanto’s influence on the EPA process and about the research regulators rely on. The documents suggest that Monsanto’s long-standing claims about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup do not necessarily rely on sound science as the company asserts, but on efforts to manipulate the science.

U.S. Right to Know is posting key documents and analysis from the litigation.

Endocrine Disruption and Other Health Concerns

Some research has also indicated that glyphosate may be an endocrine disruptor; has been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals; and may kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

Many scientists have raised concerns about the health risks of glyphosate:

GMO Connection

Most genetically modified (GMO) crops – some 94% of soy and 89% of corn grown in the U.S., according to USDA data – are “herbicide tolerant” crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate exposure.

Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” GMO crops were introduced in 1996, according to a study by Charles Benbrook in Environmental Sciences Europe.

Desiccation 

Farmers also use glyphosate on non-GMO crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and lentils to dry down the crop ahead of harvest in order to accelerate the harvest. This practice, known as desiccation, may be a significant source of dietary exposure to glyphosate, according to Benbrook.

Glyphosate Found in Food: U.S. Drags Its Feet on Testing

The USDA has quietly dropped a plan to start testing food for residues of glyphosate. Internal agency documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the agency had planned to start testing over 300 samples of corn syrup for glyphosate on April 1, 2017. Now the agency says the plan is dead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began a limited testing program of its own in 2016, but the effort was fraught with controversy and internal difficulties and the program was suspended in September 2016. Both agencies have programs that annually test foods for pesticide residues but both have routinely skipped testing for glyphosate.

Before the suspension, one FDA chemist found alarming levels of glyphosate in many samples of U.S. honey, levels that were technically illegal because there have been no allowable levels established for honey by the EPA. Here are the most recent findings about glyphosate levels in food:

  • Sept. 21, 2016: FDA found glyphosate in US honey at double the levels allowed in the EU.
  • Nov. 3, 2016: FDA chemist found glyphosate in honey in Iowa at 10X higher levels than allowed in EU.

Pesticides in Our Food: Where’s the Safety Data?

USDA data from 2016 shows detectable pesticide levels in 85% of more than 10,000 foods sampled, everything from mushrooms to grapes to green beans. The government says there are little to no health risks, but some scientists say there is little to no data to back up that claim. See: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions