To help her lose weight, Mary Nash Stoddard of Dallas drank Tab, which contains a food additive called aspartame, an artificial sweetener marketed under the names of NutraSweet and Equal.
Within a few months, Stoddard says she began to suffer cramping pains all over her body. Then, she says, she experienced a ringing in her ears, muscle spasms, hot sweats at night, numbness in her arms, hives, and acne. One day, she temporarily lost her hearing. Terrified, Stoddard feared she had contracted AIDS.
“My husband had had a recent blood transfusion, so I thought that was how it was transmitted to me,” says the forty-nine-year-old mother of three. When an AIDS test came back negative, Stoddard started making appointments with an army of doctors. A battery of tests gave her no answers. Depressed and contemplating suicide, Stoddard did the last thing she could think of. She stopped drinking Tab. To her surprise the symptoms subsided, then disappeared. Her doctor told her she apparently had a low tolerance to aspartame.
Soon, Stoddard discovered she was not alone. She learned of a group called Aspartame Victims and Their Friends, based in Florida and founded by a woman who claims she suffered optic nerve damage from aspartame. By mid-1987 Stoddard had formed a Texas chapter of AVTF, targeting the Food and Drug Administration and the NutraSweet Company, a division of Monsanto and the makers of aspartame.
Both the FDA and NutraSweet insist that aspartame is safe for everyone except a tiny minority who carry a pair of genes that cause the metabolic defect called PKU, which can cause mental retardation in infants. All aspartame products must carry a warning to this group. NutraSweet says that some lawsuits stemming from complaints about aspartame have been settled out of court and others are pending.
A one-day Senate hearing was held in Washington, DC., this past November to discuss these issues. One witness from Dallas, Larry Taylor, testified that he could no longer work as a nurse anesthetist because of seizures caused by aspartame consumption. Senator Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, is drawing up a bill that calls for better labeling, funding for independent research into the effects of aspartame, and a government-supported hotline for complaints.
Meanwhile, Stoddard has turned down an offer from the NutraSweet Company to be tested by its doctors. She also has turned down the company’s offer to participate in a double blind study using aspartame capsules and placebos. “I don’t trust them to evaluate their own product. Why should they when it’s making them millions in profits?” Stoddard says.