Ask the FDA: What’s Sneaking into your Shopping Cart?

Embattled in yet another food fight, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is facing criticism for approving a new synthetic sweetener, and for allowing it to creep unlabeled into American food products, including those certified organic.

Neotame, the sweetener under scrutiny, is a calorie-free alternative to sugar—and a known neurotoxin. Created by NutraSweet, then owned by food titan Monsanto, the sweetener was submitted for approval in 1998 and was subsequently approved in 2002. It has been used to enhance food since then, sometimes, in ways unknown to the American public, its name withheld from the ingredients list.

While Neotame is a derivative of Aspartame, a fellow toxic sweetener produced by Monsanto, it also contains 3-dimethylbutyl, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated as a “known hazard.”

“Neotame has similar structure to aspartame — except that, from its structure, [it] appears to be even more toxic than aspartame,” explains health website Holistic Med. “Like aspartame, some of the concerns include gradual neurotoxic and immunotoxic damage from the combination of the formaldehyde metabolite (which is toxic at extremely low doses) and the excitotoxic amino acid.”

Yet those “low doses” are key for the proponents of Neotame, who claim that since Neotame is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than natural sugar and 30 to 60 times sweeter than Aspartame, less of it can be used as a flavor enhancer. Thus, supporters say, the smaller amounts of Neotame added to foods make it a safer alternative to other sweeteners.

Organic food supporters, however, say that the health risk associated with Neotame is not the lead player in this debate. It’s the principle of the thing. It’s the idea that the government should not be cozying up to corporations, especially when consumers’ health is on the line. It’s the idea that consumers have the right to know exactly what goes into their food—whether or not Neotame is safe enough to be put on the dinner table should ultimately be up to the buyer to decide, regardless of what the FDA thinks.

“Consumers have the right to know what they are buying and should not be tricked into purchasing organic products that are not truly chemical free,” writes Lindsey Powers, who began a petition addressed to the United States Food and Drug Administration and aimed at requiring Neotame to be listed as an ingredient wherever it is present. “For reasons that are unclear, the FDA ruled that Neotame is acceptable in all foods and does not need to be included on the list of ingredients for USDA Certified Organic food items as well as Certified Kosher products.”

Powers’ petition is available here:

For now, consumers will have to be more cautious when grocery shopping, because labels lie and killers lurk on store shelves.

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