Academics Review: The Making of a Monsanto Front Group

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Academics Review, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization launched in 2012, claims to be an independent group but documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed it is a front group set up with the help of Monsanto and its public relations team to attack agrichemical industry critics while appearing to be independent.

Covert industry funding 

The Academics Review website describes its founders as “two independent professors,” Bruce Chassy, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and David Tribe, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. As of May 2018, the website claims, “Academics Review only accepts unrestricted donations from non-corporate sources to support our work.”

However, tax records show that the primary funder of Academics Review has been the Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade association that is funded and run by the largest agrichemical companies: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.

According to CBI tax records, the industry-funded group gave Academics Review a total of $650,000 in 2014 and 2015-2016. Tax records for AcademicsReview.org report expenses of $791,064 from 2013-2016 (see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The money was spent on organizing conferences and promoting GMOs and pesticides, according to the tax records.

Emails reveal secret origin of academic front group

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state Freedom of Information requests revealed the inner workings of how Academics Review was set up as a front group with the help of Monsanto, its PR allies and industry funders. See “Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food,” by Stacy Malkan (6/30/2016).

Key facts and emails:

  • Eric Sachs, a senior public relations executive at Monsanto, said he would help find industry funding for Academics Review. “The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” Sachs wrote to Chassy on November 30, 2010.
  • Academics Review was conceived as a front group that could attack critics of the agrichemical industry. According to a March 11, 2010 email chain, the group was established with the help of Monsanto executives along with Jay Byrne, former director of corporate communications at Monsanto who now runs a PR shop called v-Fluence Interactive; and Val Giddings, former VP of the biotech industry trade association BIO.
  • Byrne compared the concept as similar to – but better than – a front group set up by Rick Berman, a lobbyist known as  “Dr. Evil” and the “king of corporate front groups and propaganda” for his work to promote tobacco and oil industry interests under the cover of neutral-sounding groups. Berman’s “’Center for Consumer Freedom’ (ActivistCash.com) has cashed in on this to the extreme; and I think we have a much better concept,” Byrne wrote to Chassy on March 11, 2010.
  • Byrne said he was developing an “opportunities list with targets” for Monsanto comprised of “individuals organizations, content items and topic areas” critical of ag-biotech that “mean money for a range of well heeled corporations.”
  • Chassy indicated he was especially keen to go after the organic industry. “I would love to find a prime name in the middle of the organic aura from which to launch ballistic missiles,” he wrote on March 11, 2010. In 2014, Academics Review attacked the organic industry with a report it falsely claimed was the work of independent academics with no conflicts of interest.

Monsanto plan names Academics Review as “industry partner” 

Academics Review is an “industry partner”according to a confidential Monsanto PR document that describes the corporation’s plans to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. On March 20, 2015, IARC announced it had classified glyphosate as Group 2A carcinogen, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Monsanto PR document lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts to discredit the cancer panel’s report. Academics Review was listed as a Tier 2 “industry partner” along with Genetic Literacy Project, Sense About Science, Biofortified, and the AgBioChatter academics list serve.

An Academics Review article dated March 25, 2015 claimed the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts.” The article linked to the industry-funded GMO Answers, the front group American Council on Science and Health and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Bruce Chassy’s ties to industry and its front groups

Professor Bruce Chassy, co-founder of Academics Review and president of the board, has been frequently cited in the media as an independent expert on GMOs, while he was also receiving undisclosed funds from Monsanto.

Chassy had received $57,000 in undisclosed funds over a two-year period from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs, according to WBEZ. The story reported that Monsanto also sent at least $5.1 million through the University of Illinois Foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015.

Chassy is on the “Board of Science and Policy Advisors” of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry funded front groupthat works with Monsanto. Chassy is also an “independent expert” for GMO Answers, a marketing website for GMOs and pesticides funded by the agrichemical industry.

Articles about Bruce Chassy’s industry ties:

  • New York Times, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show,” by Eric Lipton (9/5/2015)
  • New York Times email archive, “A University of Illinois Professor Joins the Fight,” (9/5/2015)
  • WBEZ, “Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding,” by Monica Eng (3/15/2016)
  • US Right to Know, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign,” by Carey Gillam (1/29/2016)

David Tribe / Academics Review / Biofortified

David Tribe is co-founder of Academics Review, vice president of the Academics Review Board of Directors, and a reviewer on the 2014 Academics Review report attacking the organic industry. Tribe is also a member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified Inc., or Biofortified, another Monsanto “partner” group that assists with lobbying and public relations campaigns.

Industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camps

The Biotech Literacy Project boot camps were industry-funded conferences organized by Academics Review and Genetic Literacy Project, another  Monsanto “partner” group. The boot camps trained scientists and journalists how to present GMOs and pesticides in a more positive light, and had explicit political aims to stave off GMO labeling and prop up flagging support for agrichemical industry products.

Boot camp organizers made false claims to journalists and scientists about the source of funds for the Biotech Literacy Project boot camps:

“I was offered a $2,000 honorarium, as well as expenses. I wrote back and asked who would provide the honorarium and was told it’d be a combination of funds from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).” (Journalist Brooke Borel, Popular Science)

“I need to be clear up front that our support comes from BIO, USDA, state-USAID and some foundation money so industry is indirectly a sponsor.We are 100% transparent about sponsorship.”  (Bruce Chassy email to scientists)

However, USDA and other government and academic sources named by the organizers denied funding the events and the only traceable source of funds appears to be the agrichemical industry-funded Council for Biotechnology Information, according to The Progressive.

More information:

For more information about the findings of U.S. Right to Know and media coverage about collaborations between industry groups and academics on food issues, see our investigations page. U.S. Right to Know documents are also available in the Chemical Industry Documents Library hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

Internal FDA Emails: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers

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This article was published the Guardian on April 30, 2018

By Carey Gillam

US government scientists have detected a weedkiller linked to cancer in an array of commonly consumed foods, emails obtained through a freedom of information request show.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing food samples for residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in hundreds of widely used herbicide products, for two years, but has not yet released any official results.

But the internal documents obtained by the Guardian show the FDA has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.

“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist Richard Thompson wrote to colleagues in an email last year regarding glyphosate. Thompson, who is based in an FDA regional laboratory in Arkansas, wrote that broccoli was the only food he had “on hand” that he found to be glyphosate-free.

That internal FDA email, dated January 2017, is part of a string of FDA communications that detail agency efforts to ascertain how much of the popular weedkiller is showing up in American food. The tests mark the agency’s first-ever such examination…

See full article in The Guardian and more reporting about glyphosate here.

Email of intrigue: “IARC is killing us!”

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As researchers we often look to documents to shed new light on issues important to food policy. Sometimes, they simply reflect what we already know.

That’s the case with one new communication string that adds to evidence of a far-reaching strategy by food industry players to discredit and diminish the world’s leading cancer research agency. We’ve already seen documents from Monsanto and other chemical industry interests laying out plans to tear apart the credibility of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) because of its classification of Monsanto’s weed killer glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Now we see evidence that other food industry players are part of the scheme; working to head off potentially damaging IARC scrutiny of food additives such as aspartame, sucralose, and more.

The email of intrigue was obtained through a state open records request.  It shows communication between James Coughlin, a one-time scientist for Kraft General Foods Inc. who operates a food and “nutritional” consulting business, and Timothy Pastoor, a retired toxicologist with the agrochemical giant Syngenta AG who now runs his own “science communications” business. Also included on a portion of the email string is Monsanto PR man Jay Byrne, who runs a “reputation management” and public relations business, and Douglas Wolf, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist now with Syngenta.

In the October 2016 email, Coughlin tells Pastoor how he’s been “fighting IARC forever!!” dating back to his time at Kraft. He relates the time he spent criticizing the international cancer agency to a U.S. House of Representatives staffer who was coordinating an effort to strip U.S. funding from IARC.

And then, articulating the deep fear the food industry holds for the cancer agency, he gets to the meat of the matter: “IARC is killing us!” he writes. The 2-page string can be found here. An excerpt is below:

Outstanding Book of the Year: Whitewash by Carey Gillam

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Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam (Island Press) has been named an Outstanding Book of the Year by the Independent Book Publisher Awards.

Hard-hitting, eye-opening narrative…A forceful argument for an agricultural regulatory environment that puts public interest above corporate profits.”  Kirkus Reviews

This is a must-read for everyone concerned about the increasing burden of toxic chemicals in water and food, the health and environmental consequences thereof, and corporate influence on government agencies.Booklist 

“Gillam expertly covers a contentious front where corporate malfeasance intersects with issues of public health and ecology.” Publishers Weekly 

“a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism.” Society for Environmental Journalists BookShelf

“well-documented compendium of wrongs, fraud, conflicts of interest, undue influence, and troubling forms of plain old [PR]….Some of its revelations are downright infuriating. Los Angeles Review of Books 

See also: Carey Gillam’s testimony before a joint committee of the European Parliament on 10/11/2017 and her reporting from the Daubert Hearings in the Cancer Victims Vs. Monsanto glyphosate litigation.

Book Description

It’s the pesticide on our dinner plates, a chemical so pervasive it’s in the air we breathe, our water, our soil, and even found increasingly in our own bodies. Known as Monsanto’s Roundup by consumers, and as glyphosate by scientists, the world’s most popular weed killer is used everywhere from backyard gardens to golf courses to millions of acres of farmland. For decades it’s been touted as safe enough to drink, but a growing body of evidence indicates just the opposite, with research tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.

In Whitewash, veteran journalist Carey Gillam uncovers one of the most controversial stories in the history of food and agriculture, exposing new evidence of corporate influence. Gillam introduces readers to farm families devastated by cancers which they believe are caused by the chemical, and to scientists whose reputations have been smeared for publishing research that contradicted business interests. Readers learn about the arm-twisting of regulators who signed off on the chemical, echoing company assurances of safety even as they permitted higher residues of the pesticide in food and skipped compliance tests. And, in startling detail, Gillam reveals secret industry communications that pull back the curtain on corporate efforts to manipulate public perception.

Whitewash is more than an exposé about the hazards of one chemical or even the influence of one company. It’s a story of power, politics, and the deadly consequences of putting corporate interests ahead of public safety.

http://careygillam.com/book
Publication date October 2017

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More Praise for Whitewash

“The book unravels a tapestry of pesticide industry tricks to manipulate the scientific truths about their products while placing profits above human health and the environment. As someone who has experienced similar actions by corporations firsthand in my work far too often, I am hopeful that Carey’s book will be a wake-up call for more transparency about the dangers surrounding many chemicals in the marketplace.” Erin Brockovich, environmental activist and author

Carey Gillam has brilliantly assembled the facts and describes how Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies lied about their products, covered up the damaging data and corrupted government officials in order to sell their toxic products around the world.  David Schubert, Ph.D., Professor and Head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute For Biological Studies

Carey Gillam is a brave warrior in the mold of Rachel Carson. She has exposed the ruthless greed and fraud which have led to the poisoning of our planet. Brian G.M. Durie, M.D. Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation, oncology specialist and attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

In the grand tradition of Silent Spring, Carey Gillam’s Whitewash is a powerful exposé that sheds light on a chemical that — to most of us — is both entirely invisible and yet profoundly damaging to our bodies and our environment. It is a deeply researched, entirely convincing exposé of the politics, economics and global health consequences implicit in the spread of the world’s most common herbicide. Gillam has done what all great journalists strive to do: she has made us see clearly what has long been right before our eyes. Highly recommended.  McKay Jenkins, author, Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware

Farmers Vs. Monsanto: The Glyphosate Trials

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“Science Week” in a federal court will decide if farmer cancer lawsuits move forward

Live updates from court hearings by Carey Gillam
Transcripts of Daubert Hearings posted here

News Release
For Immediate Release: Monday, March 5, 2018
For More Information Contact: Carey Gillam (913) 526-6190; Stacy Malkan (510) 542-9224

San Francisco, Calif.; March 5, 2018 — A federal court hearing in San Francisco this week will turn a spotlight on the science surrounding the world’s most widely used pesticide, glyphosate, and will determine whether farmers and their families will be able to proceed with legal action against Monsanto Co. over cancer concerns.

More than 365 lawsuits are pending against Monsanto 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 court has dubbed the March 5-9 events as “science week” because the only evidence to be presented will come from experts in cancer science, including epidemiologists, toxicologists, and biomedical statistical analysts called to analyze relevant research. The scientists will present their best scientific evidence to U.S. Judge Vince Chhabria, who will decide if the lawsuits move forward or are halted in their tracks.

Journalist and author Carey Gillam of U.S. Right to Know will be live blogging the event from the court house. Follow her posts here: https://usrtk.org/live-updates-monsanto-hearing/

See also: “Monsanto says its pesticides are safe: Now a court wants to see the proof,” by Carey Gillam, The Guardian.

Gillam is author of “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017) — “a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for readers who enjoy the kind of hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting that used to be the hallmark of great journalism,” according to the Society for Environmental Journalists’ BookShelf review.

Gillam is also research director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer and public health watchdog group. USRTK is posting documents and analysis from the MDL glyphosate cancer cases on our Monsanto Papers page.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy.  For more information, see usrtk.org.

Corporate power, not public interest, at root of science committee hearing on IARC

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(First published in Environmental Health News)

Score another point for corporate power over protection of the public.

U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, has slated a full committee hearing for Feb. 6 with an agenda aimed squarely at attacking some of the world’s top cancer scientists.

Given the fact that cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, it seems obvious that our lawmakers should be supporting cancer science rather than trying to thwart it. But Smith’s action comes after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer ( IARC) angered Monsanto Co. when it declared the pesticide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killing products, to be a probable carcinogen.

Though the hearing is titled “In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review,” the irony of the descriptor is not lost on those who have been following Smith’s efforts to derail and defund this cancer research agency.

In letters to IARC’s leadership, Smith has repeated false narratives and inaccurate news stories planted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies, and cited the “serious nature of these concerns related to expenditures of taxpayer dollars.”

It’s worth noting that the plan to put the International Agency for Research on Cancer on the hot seat was put into motion roughly three years ago when Monsanto predicted the international cancer scientists would find its weed killer to have carcinogenic potential. The company said as much in internal communications brought to light through recent litigation.

The documents also show that it was February 2015, a month before the IARC classification, when Monsanto executives laid out a strategic plan to discredit the cancer scientists. The plan was designed to “orchestrate outcry with IARC decision.”

The efforts to manipulate public perception about IARC ramped up last summer when Monsanto allies spoon-fed a false narrative to a Reuters reporter who produced a news story that shot around the globe and has been a key talking point for the chemical industry attack against IARC.

The story relied on the deposition of an IARC scientist named Aaron Blair and reported that Blair withheld critical information that would have altered the IARC glyphosate classification. Reuters never provided a link to the deposition, which at that point was not filed in any court and was not publicly available.

Chairman Smith ran with the story, stating that Blair “admitted to knowing that this research could have prevented” the classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Anyone taking time to actually read the deposition, which is now public, would see that Blair never said any such thing, and in fact protested multiple times that the data in question was not fully analyzed and not published and thus was not suitable to be considered by IARC.

A similar false narrative pushed by the chemical industry and repeated by Smith accused IARC of deleting assessments finding no connection between glyphosate and cancer from its final report. Smith and team either don’t know or don’t care that IARC’s deletions were of Monsanto assertions that the cancer scientists said could not be substantiated.

IARC officials have detailed the falsehoods perpetuated against them by the chemical industry but the defense has fallen on deaf ears.

Monsanto needs to discredit the international cancer scientists because it was the IARC finding that triggered waves of lawsuits against Monsanto, and prompted moves to ban the chemical in some European countries.

But while Monsanto and other chemical industry interests are concerned about the billions of dollars in revenues they rake in annually from glyphosate-based products, the attack on this independent science group should have all of us concerned.

Approximately 39 percent of men and women living in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.

For this year alone, the American Cancer Society has estimated there will be more than 1.68 million people newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer. Worldwide, there are more that 14 million cases of cancer occurring each year, and that number is expected to hit nearly 22 million by 2030.

Cancer “affects almost everyone’s life, either directly or indirectly,” and beyond the toll on life and health it costs the United States more than $200 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In order to reduce deaths from cancer we have to put more emphasis on preventing it in the first place, and a big part of that “primary prevention” according to a 2016 report by the HHS National Toxicology Program (NTP) “is to identify the carcinogens.”

Clearly, the companies that sell chemicals linked to cancer prefer to see IARC defunded and dismantled. They’ve said as much through the disingenuously named Council for Accuracy in Public Health Research (CAPHR), a nonprofit established by the American Chemistry Council a year ago with the specific goal of promoting the “reform” of IARC.

But to see our lawmakers so eagerly promoting corporate interests when such dire public safety interests are at stake marks perhaps a new low in American politics. These are literally life and death matters.

Our public servants must be held to account, to support the scientists who work to identify carcinogens, and push back against the corporate interests who want to discredit the science that threatens its profits.

Scientific integrity should mean exactly that.

My Friend Died from Cancer Today

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By Carey Gillam

My friend died from cancer today.

His was a short, eight-month-long battle for survival, but it was a brutal one. Now his wife and young children are not planning for Christmas; instead they are planning his funeral.

This man’s passing is a tragedy for his family and friends to be sure. But it also serves as a sad reminder of the tight grip cancer has taken on so many lives.

Approximately 39 percent of men and women living in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute. For this year alone, the American Cancer Society has estimated there will be more than 1.68 million people newly diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States.

One of the sinister twists to this creeping killer is that while we know the myriad types of cancers are caused by mutations to the DNA within cells, pinpointing exactly what agent or actions triggered the deadly DNA changes that led to a specific cancer in a specific individual is not easy.

Researchers say there are an array of causes for cancer, including an unhealthy diet, obesity and alcohol intake. Researchers also point to what they call “environmental pollutants” ― substances such asbestos, arsenic, benzene, chromium and, notably, the pesticides that have become pervasive in our lives in recent decades and are used by farmers in food production.

Data from our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that foods we eat on a regular basis contain residues of hundreds of different pesticides, tiny invisible traces of insecticides and weed killers in thousands of commonly consumed foods, including fruits and vegetables. We are also exposed to pesticides in our drinking water, and through applications made to our parks and playgrounds, lawns and gardens and schoolyards. Pesticides are also often sprayed from the air across fields and forestry.

Research suggests a possible connection between pesticides and cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and prostate, liver, pancreatic, lung and non-melanoma skin cancers. The American Academy of Pediatrics is so concerned that it is on record voicing its concerns about pesticides and ties to childhood cancers, and has called for greater protections from exposures.

The Pesticide Action Network North America, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, says that evidence is growing ever stronger that pesticide exposure is a key contributor to what the organization calls a “cancer epidemic.”

Worldwide, there are more that 14 million cases of cancer occurring each year, and that number is expected to hit nearly 22 million by 2030. Cancer “affects almost everyone’s life, either directly or indirectly,” and beyond the toll on life and health it costs the United States more than $200 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In order to reduce deaths from cancer we have to put more emphasis on preventing it in the first place, and a big part of that “primary prevention” has to do with addressing environmental causes, according to a 2016 report by the HHS National Toxicology Program (NTP). “An important step in primary prevention,” the NTP states, “is to identify the carcinogens.”

It is not a good sign that some members of Congress are now working to discredit and defund the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization specifically charged with identifying and classifying potential carcinogens. The actions by Republicans within the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology come after IARC angered Monsanto Co. when it declared the pesticide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killing products, a probable carcinogen.

It is also not encouraging that President Trump nominated a pesticide safety advocate to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety division. The nominee, Michael Dourson, has spent many years helping companies fight restrictions on potentially toxic chemicals. It is heartening, however, that strong opposition and outrage over Dourson’s nomination forced him to withdraw from consideration for the post on Wednesday.

Certainly, we all know someone with cancer or someone who has had it. But we cannot afford to become complacent, to accept this as normal, to allow politics to take precedence over public health. We need to work harder to support the science that identifies carcinogens, to encourage and fund research into alternatives to a toxic landscape, and to hold our regulators and lawmakers accountable for enforcing protective measures that limit our exposures to environmental pollutants.

I lost a friend to cancer today. It was just before dawn when he slipped away. A wife lost her husband of 30 years, a son and a daughter lost a father, and countless neighbors and friends lost a kind and generous soul, a man who devoted endless hours to coaching, mentoring and encouraging a community’s children alongside his own.

The losses are too great.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

How Monsanto Manufactured ‘Outrage’ at IARC over Cancer Classification

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By Carey Gillam

Three years ago this month Monsanto executives realized they had a big problem on their hands.

It was September 2014 and the company’s top-selling chemical, the weed killer called glyphosate that is the foundation for Monsanto’s branded Roundup products, had been selected as one among a handful of pesticides to undergo scrutiny by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monsanto had spent decades fending off concerns about the safety of glyphosate and decrying scientific research indicating the chemical might cause cancer or other diseases. And even though the IARC review was still months away, Monsanto’s own scientists knew what the outcome would likely be—and they knew it wouldn’t be good.

Internal company records show not just the level of fear Monsanto had over the impending review, but notably that company officials fully expected IARC scientists would find at least some cancer connections to glyphosate. Company scientists discussed the “vulnerability” that surrounded their efforts to defend glyphosate amid multiple unfavorable research findings in studies of people and animals exposed to the weed killer. In addition to epidemiology studies, “we also have potential vulnerabilities in the other areas that IARC will consider, namely, exposure, genetox and mode of action…” a Monsanto scientist wrote in October 2014. That same email discussed a need to find allies and arrange funding for a “fight”—all months before the IARC meeting in March 2015.

And Monsanto predicted internally before IARC even met that the review of the scientific evidence would result in a decision that glyphosate “possibly” was carcinogenic or “probably” was. Monsanto officials had forecast the IARC decision in an internal “preparedness” plan that warned colleagues to “assume and prepare for the outcome…” The document shows Monsanto thought it most likely that IARC would peg glyphosate as a “possible human carcinogen.” The rating of probable carcinogen was “possible but less likely,” the Monsanto memo stated. IARC ultimately did classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

As the IARC meeting loomed, the internal documents show that Monsanto did not wait for the actual IARC decision before acting. It enlisted teams of PR and lobbying experts, scientists and others in a plan aimed at creating what was designed to appear as a storm of “outcry” and “outrage” to follow the IARC classification. IARC had a history of “questionable and politically charged rulings,” the Monsanto memo said.

The plan was to create enough controversy to thoroughly discredit IARC’s evaluation because Monsanto officials knew that regulators would be influenced by IARC, and continued widespread use of the top-selling chemical could be at risk.

“It is possible that IARC’s decision will impact future regulatory decision making,” Monsanto stated in its internal correspondence.

The timing was critical because in 2015 both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Commission were evaluating re-authorizations of Monsanto’s weed killer. Following IARC’s classification, both the European Union and the EPA delayed final decisions on glyphosate amid the still-brewing debate over the chemical’s safety.

“What this indicates to me is that it was obvious to Monsanto that there was evidence of carcinogenicity,” said Peter Infante, an epidemiologist who worked for more than 24 years for the U.S. government studying cancer risks to workers from exposure to toxic substances. “It would seem to me that Monsanto does not like the public to be informed of the cancer hazard.”

“What this indicates to me is that it was obvious to Monsanto that there was evidence of carcinogenicity.”

After the IARC ruling, a storm of protest did erupt from various individuals and organizations alongside Monsanto’s howls of indignant outrage. Some have questioned the wisdom of U.S. funding for IARC and Monsanto has perpetuated a false narrative that the chairman of the IARC working group withheld critical information from the team.

The document trail, which includes internal emails, memos and other communications obtained from Monsanto by plaintiffs’ attorneys through litigation pending in the U.S., makes clear that the debate over, and challenge to, IARC’s classification did not sprout authentically from a variety of voices, but rather was manufactured by Monsanto in advance of IARC’s decision and continued afterward. The goals was—and is—to convince regulators to discount the findings of the team of independent scientific experts who made up the IARC team that examined glyphosate.

The internal records obtained through litigation, combined with documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state records requests also show that the actions employed to discredit IARC were part of a decades-long pattern of deceptive tactics by Monsanto to persuade regulators, lawmakers and members of the press and public that glyphosate and Roundup are safe. The company has used these tactics multiple times over the years to try to discredit several scientists whose research has found harmful effects associated with glyphosate.

Orchestrate Outcry”

The IARC attack plan, which was laid out in a February 2015 memo, involved not only Monsanto’s internal PR people, scientists and marketing experts, but a range of outside industry players. Various individuals were assigned tasks. The “strategies and tactics” included:

  • “Orchestrate Outcry” with IARC Decision—Industry conducts robust media/social media outreach on process and outcome.
  • “Identify/request third-party experts to blog, op/ed, tweet and/or link, repost, retweet, etc.” The documents show one such “expert,” academic Henry Miller, was provided a draft article to submit to Forbes for publication under his name with no mention of Monsanto’s involvement. Forbes learned of the deceit last month and severed relations with Miller.
  • “Inform/Inoculate/Engage Industry Partners”—Notably the industry partners listed included three organizations that purport to be independent of Monsanto but have long been seen by critics as front groups for the company—Monsanto named Academics Review and the Genetic Literacy Project, both based in the U.S. and Sense About Science. which has run operations in the United Kingdom and the U.S., as groups to help with its mission. In fact, Sense About Science was the group identified by Monsanto to lead the industry response and “provide a platform for IARC observers.” The groups did as Monsanto planned, posting scathing attacks on IARC on their websites.
  • Engagement with Regulatory Agencies—Monsanto planned for grower associations/ growers to “write regulators with an appeal that they remain focused on the science, not the politically charged decision by IARC.”
  • “Push opinion leader letter to key daily newspaper on day of IARC ruling” with assistance of the Potomac Group marketing firm.

The preparedness plan also called for supporting “the development of three new papers on glyphosate focused on epidemiology and toxicology.” As planned, shortly after the IARC decision Monsanto arranged for several scientists—many of them former employees or paid consultants—to author and publish research papers supporting glyphosate safety. It was revealed through discovery documents that Monsanto discussed ghostwriting the papers. In one email, company scientist William Heydens told colleagues the company could “ghost-write” certain reports that would carry the names of outside scientists—”they would just edit & sign their names so to speak,” he wrote. He cited as an example a 2000 study that has been regarded as influential by regulators. Documents show Monsanto’s heavy writing and editing involvement in the resulting purportedly “independent” review.

Monsanto has adamantly denied ghostwriting, but one memo from August 2015 from the files of Monsanto scientist David Saltmiras actually uses that term, stating that he “ghostwrote cancer review paper Greim et al (2015)…” referring to a paper that showed authorship by German scientist Helmut Greim along with Saltmiras. (Monsanto has acknowledged that Greim worked as a consultant to the company with part of his job being to publish peer-reviewed data on glyphosate).

Another internal email illustrates the writing by a Monsanto scientist of a research paper titled “Developmental and Reproductive Outcomes… after Glyphosate Exposure.” The scientist, Donna Farmer, did extensive work, including what she called a “cut and paste” of certain information. But her name was not included as an author before the paper was submitted to a journal. The published version concluded there was “no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects.”

The paper trail of documents also show that Monsanto feared that a U.S. health agency planning to review glyphosate in 2015 might agree with IARC and collaborated with the EPA to successfully block that agency—the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR)—from doing its review. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep from having a domestic IARC occur,” a company official wrote. 

The record also shows that well before IARC, Monsanto recruited networks of academic scientists in the U.S and Europe who have defended Monsanto’s products, including its weed killer, without declaring their collaborations with Monsanto. And that these silent soldiers helped Monsanto discredit scientists who reported research showing harm associated with glyphosate and Roundup, including working at Monsanto’s bidding to get one damaging study by French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini retracted from a scientific journal where it was published in September 2012. The company even discounted concerns by one of its own paid consultants who found evidence of glyphosate’s genotoxicity and refused to do the additional tests he recommended.

If what Monsanto says is true, that glyphosate is so very safe, and that there is no evidence it causes cancer or other health problems, then why all the smoke and mirrors? Why would the company need to ghostwrite research papers to present to regulators? Why would Monsanto need to establish networks of scientists to promote glyphosate safety and to tear down scientists whose research raises concerns? Why would Monsanto try to block a review of glyphosate by the U.S. ATSDR?

Two committees of the European Parliament have scheduled a hearing for Oct. 11 in Brussels to delve into these and other questions as the European Commission faces a looming deadline for making a decision on the re-authorization of glyphosate before the end of 2017.

Lawmakers should take note of evidence that their own food safety agency appears to have dropped the ball on independent assessments of glyphosate research. Records show that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) dismissed a study linking Monsanto’s weed killer to cancer at the advice of an EPA official who Monsanto deemed “useful” and who is part of a probe now into possible collusion between the EPA and Monsanto.

They should also pay heed to news that EFSA based its recommendation on glyphosate on a report that copied and pasted analyses from a Monsanto study.

Monsanto Chairman Hugh Grant was invited to address the Parliament meeting in October, but declined to appear or to send anyone else from Monsanto. Dr. Roland Solecki, head of chemical safety for the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), has also declined, according to organizers. I do plan to participate, as will a representative from IARC and several others.

Throughout this debate, it is worthwhile to remember that the concerns about glyphosate safety have deep roots that date all the way back to at least 1985 when EPA toxicologists looked at data showing rare tumors in mice dosed with glyphosate and determined that glyphosate was “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Monsanto protests eventually reversed that classification but in light of all of the deceptive tactics recently revealed in documents, the words of an EPA scientist more than 30 years ago are worth considering today: “Glyphosate is suspect… Monsanto’s argument is unacceptable.”

The EPA scientist in that 1985 memo also wrote: “Our viewpoint is one of protecting the public health when we see suspicious data. It is not our job to protect registrants…”

European lawmakers would be wise to recall those words.

This article was originally published in EcoWatch.

Carey Gillam is a veteran reporter and author of Whitewash – The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science. She is research director for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer watchdog group working for truth and transparency in our food system.  

Aspartame: Decades of Science Point to Serious Health Risks

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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)

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