Considering how much random (mis)information is floating about in the infosphere, it’s no wonder that people are confused. The author of one scare story, which spread like ‘flu across the internet last year, claimed to have “spent several days lecturing at the WORLD ENVIRONMENTAL CONFERENCE on ASPARTAME”. The message read: “In the keynote address by the EPA, they announced that there was an epidemic of multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus, and they did not understand what toxin was causing this to be rampant across the United States. I explained that I was there to lecture on exactly that subject.”

The anonymous correspondent laid the blame at the door of the artificial sweetener aspartame, marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, and Spoonful. To quote: “When the temperature of Aspartame exceeds 86 degrees F, the wood alcohol in ASPARTAME coverts to formaldehyde and then to formic acid which in turn causes metabolic acidosis. (Formic acid is the poison found in the sting of fire ants). The methanol toxicity mimics multiple sclerosis; thus people are being diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis in error.”

The message goes on: “If you are using ASPARTAME and you suffer from fibromyalgia symptoms, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, vertigo, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, or memory loss – you probably have ASPARTAME DISEASE!”

It scarcely needs to be pointed out that there was no such conference and there is no such epidemic of multiple sclerosis. As the ever-dependable Urban Legends Reference Page notes in its thorough debunking of the warning: “If you can’t trust an anonymous message filled with words rendered in CAPITAL LETTERS and containing liberal doses of exclamation points, warning you about some widespread and imminent danger, what can you trust?” ( http://www.snopes.com/toxins/aspartam.htm).

The message has been traced back to 1995, when it was written by one Betty Martini. She is the founder of an organisation called ‘Mission Possible’ and, according to that organisation’s website, “has worked ceaselessly to spread the word that aspartame is a toxic poison unfit for human consumption.”

The word is certainly spreading. Like muck. However sincere Martini’s beliefs may be, her end effect is that of the boy who cried wolf. Such screeds can only serve to obscure any genuine health problems which may arise.

This article appeared in Chemistry & Industry and is reproduced here by permission of the publishers.

15 February 1999