The Aspartame / NutraSweet Fiasco

By James S. Turner

Many health-conscious people believe that avoiding aspartame, found in over 5000 products under brand names such as Equal and NutraSweet, can improve their quality of life. The history of this synthetic sweetener’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including a long record of consumer complaints and the agency’s demonstrated insensitivity to public concern, suggests they’re right.

In October 1980 the Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) impaneled by the FDA to evaluate aspartame safety found that the chemical caused an unacceptable level of brain tumors in animal testing. Based on this fact, the PBOI ruled that aspartame should not be added to the food supply.

This ruling capped 15 years of regulatory ineptitude, chicanery and deception by the FDA and the Searle drug company, aspartame’s discoverer and manufacturer (acquired by Monsanto in 1985), and kicked off another two decades of maneuvering, manipulating and dissembling by FDA, Searle and Monsanto.

In 1965, a Searle scientist licked some of a new ulcer drug from his fingers and discovered the sweet taste of aspartame. Eureka! Selling this chemical as a food additive to hundreds of millions of healthy people every day would mean many more dollars than limited sales to the much smaller group of ulcer sufferers.

Searle, a drug company with little experience in food regulation, began studies to comply with the law — but which failed to do so. Its early tests of the substance showed it produced microscopic holes and tumors in the brains of experimental mice, epileptic seizures in monkeys, and was converted by animals into dangerous substances, including formaldehyde.

In 1974, however, in spite of the information in its files, the FDA approved aspartame as a dry-foods additive. But the agency also made public for the first time the data supporting a food-additive decision. This data was subsequently reviewed by renowned brain researcher John Olney from Washington University in St. Louis, and other scientists.

Dr. Olney discovered two studies showing brain tumors in rats and petitioned FDA for a public hearing. Consumer Action for Improved Foods and Drugs (represented by the author of this piece) also petitioned for a public hearing based on the approval process having been based on sloppy science and the product’s having reportedly caused epileptic seizures in monkeys and possible eye damage.

Dr. Olney had already shown that aspartic acid (one aspartame component) caused microscopic holes in the brains of rats after each feeding. Aspartame also includes phenylalinine, which causes PKU in a small number of susceptible children, and methyl, or wood, alcohol which is neurotoxic in large amounts.

Faced with this array of possible health dangers, FDA granted the hearing requests. In lieu of withdrawing its aspartame approval, the agency prevailed on Searle to refrain from marketing the sweetener until after completion of the hearing process. it then proposed that a Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) review the matter.

In July of 1975, as the FDA prepared for the PBOI, an FDA inspector conducted a routine review of the Searle’s Skokie Ill., testing facilities and found many deviations from proper procedures. This report led the FDA commissioner to empanel a Special Commissioner’s Task Force to review Searle’s labs.

In December of 1975 the Task force reported serious problem with Searle research on a wide range of products, including aspartame. It found 11 pivotal studies conducted in a manner so flawed as to raise doubts about aspartame safety and create the possibility of serious criminal liability for Searle.

The FDA then stayed aspartame’s approval. It also contracted, over serious internal objection, with a group of university pathologists (paid by Searle) to review most of the studies, set up a task force to review three studies and asked the U.S. Attorney for Chicago to seek a grand jury review of the monkey seizure study.

The pathologists paid by Searle only reviewed failure to properly report data and not the study’s design or conduct. They found no serious problems. The FDA task force found Searle’s key tumor safety study unreliable, but was ignored. The U.S. attorney let the statue of limitations run out, then (along with two aides) proceeded to join Searle’s law firm.

While these committees met, the FDA organized the PBOI. Searle, the petitioners and the FDA Bureau of Foods each nominated three members for the board and the FDA commissioner selected one member from each list. the board, which convened in January of 1980, rejected petitioners’ request to include the commissioner’s task force information in its deliberations. Still, in October 1980, based on its limited review, the board blocked aspartame marketing until the tumor studies could be explained. Unless the commissioner overruled the board, the matter was closed.

In November 1980, however, the country elected Ronald Reagan President. Donald Rumsfeld (former congressman from Skokie, former White House chief of staff, former secretary of defense and since January 1977 president of Searle) joined the Reagan transition team. A full court press against the board decision began.

In January 1981 Rumsfeld told a sales meeting, according to one attendee, that he would call in his chips and get aspartame approved by the end of the year. On January 25th, the day the new president took office, the previous FDA commissioner’s authority was suspended, and the next month, the commissioner’s job went to Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes.

Transition records do not show why the administration chose Hayes, a professor and Defense Department contract researcher. In July Hayes, defying FDA advisors, approved aspartame for dry foods — his first major decision. In November 1983 the FDA approved aspartame for soft drinks — Hayes’ last decision.

In November 1983 Hayes, under fire for accepting corporate gifts, left the agency and went to Searle’s public-relations firm as senior medical advisor. Later Searle lawyer Robert Shapiro named aspartame NutraSweet. Monsanto purchased Searle. Rumsfeld received a $12 million bonus. Shapiro is now Monsanto president.

Shortly after the FDA soft-drink approval, Searle began test marketing, and complaints began to arrive at the FDA — of such reactions as dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, and seizures. The complaints were more serious than the agency had ever received on any food additive, At the same time, scientists began looking more closely at this manufactured chemical sweetener.

In 1985, the FDA asked the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to review the first 650 complaints (there are now over 10,000). CDC found that the symptoms in approximately 25% of the complainants had stopped and then restarted, corresponding with their having stopped and then restarted, either purposely or by accident, aspartame consumption.

The CDC also identified several specific subjects whose symptoms stopped and started as they stopped and started consuming aspartame. The FDA discounted the report. The day the FDA released the CDC report, Pepsi Cola — having obtained an advance copy — announced its switch to aspartame with a worldwide media blitz.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rumsfeld owed a debt of gratitude to former White House confidante and Rumsfeld friend Donald Kendal, Pepsi’s chairman. The Pepsi announcement and aggressive marketing (millions of gumballs, a red and white swirl, tough contracts) made NutraSweet known in every home.

At the same time, according to data released in 1995, human brain tumors like those in the animal studies rose 10% and previously benign tumors turned virulent. Searle and FDA’s deputy commissioner said the data posed no problem. Two years later this same FDA official became vice president of clinical research for Searle.

From 1985 to 1995, researchers did about 400 aspartame studies. They were divided almost evenly between those that gave assurances and those that raised questions about the sweetener. Most instructively, Searle paid for 100% of those finding no problem. All studies paid for by non-industry sources raised questions.

Given this record, it is little wonder that many health-conscious people believe avoiding NutraSweet improves their quality of life. If and when a scientific consensus concludes that aspartame puts some, if not all, of its consumers at risk, it will be much too late. The point is to eat safely now. Remember: the brain you save may be your own.

James S. Turner, Esq., is a partner in the 27-year-old Washington, D.C. consumer-interest law firm of Swankin and Turner. He is the author of The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on the Food and Drug Administration, Making Your Own Baby Food, and a number of law journal and popular media articles.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelly May 25, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I hope the u.s sort out their shit and get it together soon, my precious baby boy passed away of brain cancer here in nz and we have a disgusting healthcare system here I am ashamed to call myself a kiwi now

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Sandra Marie October 7, 2013 at 3:06 am

Once I heard the negativity and poison of Aspertame, and to read labels, I cut off the poison little packages, the blue and yellow ones. Yet, I had a slow reckoning in not eating the “diet” products because I believed these foods were good. Then again I hear about what Aspertame does to our body and what a negative it is. I finally decided not to eat anything that says…low calorie, no sugar added and it reads “diet”…yeah, I read it again and say, poison!!!!!!! So I drink more water with limon, or even a little real sugar, sugar is bad if I overdo it, but I have learned that sugar…less is more. I don’t crave sweets, just on Holidays. I am using Stevia, and I am learning in my old age, and teaching my adult children the dangers of the chemicals in our food. That natural foods are better and safer, to think before just buying sweets, diet foods. Just to think of what it will do to our bodies and of any side effects that could be detrimental and even early death. I enjoyed reading all about Aspertame, and also all the comments people left here for me. I am grateful, I also know that knowledge is power. This knowledge Is freedom of evil.

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Danielle September 1, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Does twisted tea light have aspartame in it? It doesn’t give the ingredients anywhere!?!?

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Jasper September 15, 2012 at 11:42 pm

I was almost interested in the information on this site until I read this article. Let us assume for the moment that the FDA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Searle. Now explain to me the vast conspiracy required to get all other food regulatory agencies in the world on board with this. Not to mention all the diabetes organizations in the world.

This article lack any kind of citation for its claims except possibly John Olney. “From 1985 to 1995, researchers did about 400 aspartame studies.” Citation please, as wikipedia says the exact opposite and they actually give citations for the stated facts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame_controversy#Cancer) rather than talking about unnamed researchers. ” according to data released in 1995″… Released by who exactly?

Then who is James S. Turner, Esq exactly? A lawyer. Not a medical researcher. Not a statistician. A lawyer. Who happens to be a democrat who actively donates to political campaigns (http://vote.sigfig.com/org/Swankin%20%26%20Turner/-). He also happens tom mention a lot of names in this “article” which just happen to be political opponents of the democrats. Again, he fails to actually cite any source or authority other than John Olney.

I am willing to believe corruption on some scale exists to keep stevia from the market, but this all out attack on aspartame is pandering to an audience who are preinclined to dislike the people mentioned and maybe to even have a deep distrust of all authority. This last certainly applies to me, but then I distrust Mr Turner absolutely at this point.

I’m still interested in Stevia, but this site is not the source of information I am looking for obviously.

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James September 30, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Keep on pounding the diet drinks, chewing gum, and no cal snacks. It’s your choice. In the meantime I’ll be looking for alternatives like stevia etc.

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Carolyn August 8, 2012 at 4:12 am

Are we talking about Gary Johnson who must be about……well 14 or 15 at most …. plus… he was 29/30 so he is maybe 72 years old now? He worked for Monsanto in the UK. That Gary Johnson? Interesting.

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Chellspecker July 13, 2012 at 1:01 am

So, thirty-two years after this substance was proven to cause brain tumors, I’m ordering dinner with a friend, the waitress asks, “Anything to drink with that?” and he replies, “Yeah, I’ll have a Diet Coke.” They drove this poison to market despite all evidence that it is unsafe to consume. These corrupt business-people would have us all breathing nerve gas if they could convince us it would make us appear younger, thinner or more beautiful. When corporate greed meets consumer vanity, billions are at stake and it seems nothing can dam the river of cash at stake.

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Jasper September 15, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Exactly what proof? This proof you speak off does not exist.

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JimmyPisos January 31, 2013 at 5:43 am

Jasper – what are you a lobbyist for Monsanto? What proof? The 2nd and 7th paragraphs in the story above for starters. Monsanto – the same company that created Agent Orange and said it was safe. The same company that created GMO’s and claims they’re safe. Their claims are ONLY by “scientific researchers” on the Monsanto payroll. They bought Searle, based in the most corrupt city and state in the country – Chicago, IL. And through Donald Rumsfeld (a native from Skokie, IL) used political connections to get the poison they call NutraSweet approved. Now Monsanto not only has these crooks on their board and payroll, but they’ve helped place more of their cronies inside the FDA to continue pushing their poisons into America’s food chain so they can continue to fill their pockets with money. Some day, guys like Shapiro and Rumsfeld will see their kids or grand kids diagnosed with mysterious forms of cancer and diseases that all their millions won’t be save. Only then will they realize what they’ve done to the people and children of the world.

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Richard July 12, 2012 at 10:23 pm

HW and GW Bush own huge shares of Pfizer Pharmaceutical and used the FDA as an excuse to let people die here when there was a flu vaccine shortage. Rick Perry gets kickbacks from Merck and tried to enact law that would FORCE teenage girls to get unneeded HPV inoculations that would only stop ONE of a dozen strains of HPV. Trials showed many girls had horrible side effects. Big pharma, insurance companies and the MIC (Military Industrial Complex) run America through our corrupt congressmen many of whom have obviously been “lobbied” (bribed) in the same way Big pharma and the insurance companies wrote the ACA law (Obamacare) so they could exclude giving full-life medical care (Death Panels) to the Baby-boomers who’ve paid their insurance premiums all their lives. You’ll be given pain pills and paid incentives to “self-terminate” once you get any “expensive illnesses” the insurance board decides is not in their financial best interest to treat late in your life.

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Adam May 21, 2012 at 8:06 am

Did you know there’s a drink in New Zealand that is sweetened with Stevia? I think they are the first soft drink in the world to use Stevia as a sweetener instead of nasty synthetics and chemicals. You can buy it in Australia and NZ, not sure about anywhere else though. Here’s their website http://chidrinks.com/

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Laurie September 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Theres shelves full of sodas sweetend with Stevia at the health food stores, Blue Sky and Zevia to name 2

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Alan October 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I live in New Zealand. The main difference with this Ch’i sparkling herbal drink is that it does not contain erythritol. Zevia and the other stevia soft drinks contain quite a bit of erythritol. There is quite a difference in the calories attributed to erythritol in various countries. Some declare it as calorie free, some declare it as delivering calories and some experts think that the more erythritol you consume the better the flora in your gut become at digesting it to extract energy (ie more calories)

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Melinda Vasquez April 12, 2012 at 10:48 pm

You should have an fb link so that we can share this article with our loved ones…

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admin April 12, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Good idea! Buttons for Facebook have been added.

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Jeff July 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I have never looked at the facts but have not been happy with the taste of these products. I never started using these products because of the taste they have. I always said to people who drink theses products a lot, ” cant you taste that”? They usually respond
” taste what?” The foul chemical taste from your drink. I think the more you use these foul products , the more you get used to the taste and might even get hooked on them. I know plenty of people hooked on diet soft drinks, think it is these chemicals? I do but I have nothing to support it. I just support it by what i see every day . People hear no sugar or loose weight and they flock like sheep, it will never change. People are to lazy and or content to do any investigating of there own. If as a nation we keep this attitude with all things we will loose control of it all cause nobody will care enough to find out or do anything about it. The government lies, about everything. It is set up that way and the people who lie make the rules of how to lie and get away with it. I for one am going to be more involved when it comes to anything that is in my food or drink, cause the health and health problems in this nation are getting worse not better and there are reasons for it.

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Jasper September 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Stating that you have never looked at the facts makes you one of the most honest people on this page. Yet then you go on to complain that “People are to lazy and or content to do any investigating of there own”. You even say that you think people get addicted to diet soft drinks because of the chemicals based purely on your own observations and nothing else. At best this could be considered anecdotal evidence. Do you happen to know an unusually large amount of diet soft drink drinkers? Are you qualified to diagnose an addiction? I rather doubt it and with that I don’t think your statement can be considered accurate in any way shape or form.

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abielle March 16, 2013 at 7:04 pm

You have made a great point about the hypocrisy of not researching that many have. YET studies have already shown that caffeine (which is a chemical) and the sweet taste (whether sugar or artificial) do make soft drinks addictive. Oh…plus this whole issue: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2013/02/15/artificial-sweetners-diet-nutrition.html
He never claimed to be qualified–he said he suspects something. He never looked at the facts [before this article]…which only means this is the first place he looked and he’s going to keep looking. Defending the undefendable is really low. Honestly no one has anything to lose avoiding this stuff so if people chose to who cares?

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Victoria Hammond June 22, 2011 at 1:22 am

Just found this site, after being given an apparently dead stevia plant, which I am watering, because the leaves have not wilted, are still green, and I may be able to save it, and will plant it. For many years, I avoided aspartame, found that it was causing terrible problems in many people, and know that the corruption in government is crimes against humanity, and we do not charge them, they are given bonuses in the millions while killing us with their lies. Monsanto is evil, and needs to be dismantled, to start with. Searles as well. let us take back our government. feed our children safely, and stop their evil.

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Becca May 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I drank aspartame, which was in the soft drink, Tab, for years as my mother encouraged it to control my weight. But, frankly it never did. Over time, a switched to non-soft drinks like tea and sweetened my tea with just a tad of Equal. One packet was last several days. But, that also had problems, even with the tiny amount I consumed daily.

At first there were headaches, followed by blurred vision. I couldn’t see with my glasses, and I couldn’t see without them. And, the headaches remained. Even changes in eye glass prescriptions, didn’t help. When I read an online article by a former nurse about aspartame, I wondered if that was the reason for both my headaches and my blurred vision. Looking up aspartame at the National Library of Medicine, TOXNET data bases, I found the Hazardous Substances Data Bank and traced the metabolites (break down process). And just as Betty had written, aspartame breaks down ultimately to an ant poison in our bodies.

Trashing aspartame and never purchasing anything containing it again, really helped. My vision problems cleared up to age-related rather than poison related (I still need glasses for reading, but not always for driving). The headaches disappeared. And, my weight problem, well it’s still there. I have to watch what and how much I eat, and I have to exercise constantly to maintain, otherwise I gain.

I never went back to sugar, but avoided artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and others created in a chemical laboratory. The new one which is stealthily put into sweetened foods (even some organic foods) is Neotame. No testing for human or animal health problems. No labeling. The reason: Monsanto makes the product and their lobbyist/vice president is in charge of food safety at the U.S. FDA. Michael Taylor, appointed by the first President Herbert Walker Bush and Dan Quayle seems to have a lifetime position at the FDA making policy and keeping their products on the market regardless of the studies coming in from around the world, and regardless of other countries banning their products and genetically modified agriculture, all created by Monsanto. The FDA does NOT protect our health. They protect corporate wealth.

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Lois May 13, 2011 at 7:36 pm

I have found out the hard way to avoid Aspertame. I was drinking a diet drink daily that was processed with Aspertame along with diet desserts that contained Aspertame. I lost the use of my left arm and quit the Aspertame use. A couple of years later I forgot that Crystal Light contained Aspertame and drank quite a bit of it. I started having symptoms of a heart attack, went to the ER and was told they couldn’t find anything. I asked myself what I had done differently and remembered the episode that I had before. Cut out the Crystal Light and all symptoms disapeared. I shudder to think what might have happened to me had I not discontinued the Aspartame usage.

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Jasper September 15, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Have you considered you may actually have another condition which reacts badly with aspartame (and most likely other substances)? Go to a doctor.

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Anrea February 1, 2013 at 11:09 am

Jasper it seems important to you that Aspertame is safe to eat. Can you explain why you think this?

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Jenny February 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Just wish more people had enough ambition to care and know about all of these terrible things that so greatly affect every single one of us in so many ways. However, it seems like the more people who do know the truth & try to help educate people on the truths behind the FDA and the whole government, and it’s crude operations, the less interested people are becoming in the various topics and issues and as a result they then shy away from getting involved. I guess it’s just easier to ignore it all, take a few prescription pills, keep going to the doctor (who is only practicing, yes practicing, and on them at that!) and continue life as they know it- because after all… there is nothing they can do about it, right? People are getting so sick in the world and it all is caused mainly by things like this and they don’t even recognize that we are the only ones who can do something about it, I hope people choose to get more involved in the very near future because the human race has become it’s own worst enemy, and we don’t need any more enemies. I really appreciate it articles like this one where people who do know the truth choose to speak up and tell the facts of the whole story and not just parts of it that alter their whole perception of the issue at hand. THIS IS HUGE, IT AFFECTS US ALL, IT IS A SERIOUS MEDICAL RISK, it’s the gov’t saying, go ahead, give everyone a small dose of poison in all kinds of things they already like to consume, tell them it isn’t a risk, collect money, collect money, collect money, create more opportunities to collect money some more, and it just goes on and on. How do these assholes sleep at night, don’t they have kids? Do they even consider using this crap in their daily diet…. I bet none of them do, I bet none of them have even considered it…..

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Basil Salah January 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm

My faith in the system is at a poi9nt where I will NOT take any more prescription drugs and will only use natural supplements from now on. I am diabetic, and researching real cures that are natural. i am finding things out like Stevia (I hope) as an alternative natural food, and will also be growing it myself this summer. I may have to expand my organic garden to grow all of my food. The Pharmaceuticals are also controlling the poisons they prescribe as the only remedy for cancer, Chemo, Radiation and Surgery (Poison, Burn, & Slash) and to this day saying these are the only remedies (They never say cure!). After 75 years and BILLIONS of dollars in research, what has The Cancer Industry given us other than POISON? That includes all of the Cancer research money, the FDA, and especially BIG PHARMA. They will not ever allow natural remedies that DO work because they cannot PATENT a natural ingredient! What an outrageous Bullshit crime! IT IS ALL GREED!

Laetrile was discovered in the 70’s (Cured Cancer) but big Pharma squelched it because it was made from APRICOT seeds! Unpatentable! Oxygen Therapy is become one of the underground cures for everything from cancer to AIDS! I have even read that Hemp Oil is curing cancer! It’s the lobbyists, Corporate Power and Greed and the well paid Government officials that keep the REAL food and medicine from ever reaching us. And now they are starting to say that Mammography tests are not only NOT good for you but doesn’t work very well either with all the radiation. It is harming you more than helping. Thermography is a non-invasive new test. PSA tests for Prostate Cancer–NOT any good!

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Jasper September 16, 2012 at 12:04 am

No, Laetrille is based on Amygdalin which was discovered in 1830. Laetrille has been around since the 50’s and not only doesn’t it cure cancer it actually is poisonous. There is indeed greed involved but it is by unscrupulous people selling and promoting this stuff which has lead to actual deaths. It is a multimillion dollar illegal industry. Why would you trust one set of greedy rich people and distrust the other?

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Renee Jones September 22, 2011 at 4:21 am

Stevia is completely natural. The leaves of the plant provide the sweetness. You can buy the Stevia (white and green box) sweetener in organic sections in most grocery stores but it is expensive. A great substitution is Truvia. A product made exclusively with Stevia leaves but is priced much cheaper at around 3.00 a box and is in section where you find sugar and sugar substitutes.
It is in a green and white box with a big strawberry on it.

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Jake Witmer October 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

Stevia Clear by Wisdom Naturals has no sugar or other crap added to it. Truvia does, as do almost all Stevia “products.” Stevia Clear is just Stevia and Water, with a little grapefruit seed extract to avoid discoloration.

The active ingredient you’re trying to avoid is sugar, or harmful cyclamates, etc. that evolution hasn’t ever dealt with. Some people are not bothered by Nutrasweet, and there should be total freedom of choice if people want to take responsibility for poisoning themselves with it. …But the FDA should not have any veto power. That veto power –the ability to deny choice, and silence free speech, so long as it is only “advertising” or “commercial speech” that is silenced– is what is wrong with America, and wrong with the world.

The USA is dead for lack of adherence to its founding principles. Elect Dr. No or Gary Johnson president, and bring America back to life. Get out the defibrillator paddles! CLEAR!

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Erin February 21, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Truvia is not made exclusively with stevia leaves. Actually even though Truvia is marketed as stevia, it is actually 99.1% erythritol, a sugar alcohol that Cargill, who manufactures Truvia derives from corn that is 30% GMOs. It is only 9/10 of 1% rebiana and masking agent. Rebiana is the trade name Cargill gave their chemically derived stevia product and is produced by the action of chemicals and stringent alcohols on various stevia glycosides. It is not Rebaudioside A as claimed, which is one of 11 stevia glycosides and is produced by the action of sunlight on the leaves.

Instead of thinking of Truvia as stevia, you should really think of it as erythritol.

As far as the safety of stevia, I recommend going to http://www.steviauniversity.com No stevia product is promoted there, it just discusses all you would ever want to know about the herb.

(employed by Wisdom Natural Brands, the makers of SweetLeaf Stevia)

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