Aspartame, sold as NutraSweet, Equal, NatraTaste and Canderel, was discovered in 1965 by G.D. Searle Co., and originally used to treat ulcers.

It is now found in almost every dietetic or low-calorie food and beverage on the market. Used by such companies as Bayer, Con Agra Foods, Dannon, Smucker, Kellogg, Wrigley, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods (Crystal Light), Conopco (Slim-Fast), Coke, Pfizer, Wal-Mart and Wyeth, aspartame can even be found in children's vitamins.

Monsanto, which bought Searle in 1985, continues to support Searle's original claims that aspartame is harmless. In 1999, Monsanto stated:
It is physiologically impossible for aspartame to cause brain tumors because it never enters the bloodstream and thus cannot travel to essential organs, including the brain.
Aspartame is made by the NutraSweet Company - a former division of Monsanto's Life Sciences department. NutraSweet was sold to J.W. Childs Equity Partners II L.P. on May 25, 2000, an arrangement presumably designed to keep lawsuits out of the courts and away from Monsanto's doors.

Consumer groups - backed by a wealth of statistical data showing aspartame's link to immune system and nervous system damage, and the irreversible genetic harm done when aspartame metabolizes into formaldehyde in the body - continue to argue against Monsanto's assertion that aspartame is harmless. As one lawyer commented when discussing the future of aspartame litigation:
Tobacco will pale next to aspartame.
From 1965 to 1981, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to approve aspartame. Searle persisted, spending millions to get it accepted. In 1977, beleaguered by Searle's persistence and the questionable veracity of its data, the FDA asked the U.S. Attorney's office to conduct a criminal investigation of Searle for knowingly misrepresenting statistics, concealing information, and making false statements. This request, submitted in a 33-page letter to then-U.S. Justice Department Attorney Sam Skinner, identified likely violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act on Searle's part.

Searle responded by hiring the law firm Sidley & Austin. Sidley & Austin then reportedly arranged a lucrative management position for Skinner at Searle. When Skinner resigned to take the position, the investigation was effectively stalled. Skinner later went on to become Secretary of Transportation, and finally chief of staff under President George Bush, Sr.

In the meantime, the statute of limitations expired and the aspartame investigation was discontinued. Public outcry, however, kept the issue alive. The FDA, the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA), and consumer advocate groups continued to protest aspartame's use as a food additive. Searle then tried another tactic; a political one. In March of 1977, the company hired Donald Rumsfeld as their CEO. Rumsfeld, a former Member of Congress and Secretary of Defense in the Ford Administration, subsequently hired several of his Washington contacts to top management positions at Searle. (In 1985, when Rumsfeld became a director on Searle's board, he was the first person to obtain that position who was not a member of the Searle family.)

In 1981, Rumsfield stated in a Searle sales meeting that he would push for aspartame's approval using his political clout in Washington, and he did. When Ronald Reagan became president in January of 1981, he appointed Rumsfeld as part of his transitional team. The day after the appointment, Rumsfeld made Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr. the new FDA Commissioner. Hayes, dismissing the recommendations of his own FDA team of scientists, quickly approved aspartame's use. Hayes resigned in 1983 and took a job with Burson-Marsteller, Searle's public relations firm, as a senior scientific consultant, reportedly at $1,000 dollars a day. Hayes has refused to talk to the media ever since.

Other former Searle/Monsanto/NutraSweet employees include Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas, a former company attorney, and Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, another company attorney (appointed to his government position by former Attorney General John Ashcroft). Ashcroft, Thomas and Thompson were all reportedly instrumental in getting aspartame approved.

In 1995, under the Freedom of Information Act, the FDA released a list of ninety-two aspartame symptoms reported by thousands of users. This submission, known as the Bressler Report, is "one of the most damning documents about aspartame in existence"

Dr. Betty Martini, the founder of Mission Possible International, has worked in the medical field for 22 years with international health care professionals who are trying to get aspartame removed from food, drinks and medicine. According to Dr. Martini, aspartame is responsible for 75 percent of all complaints lodged with the FDA.

On September 15, 2004, a $350 million class action lawsuit was filed in United States Federal District Court in San Francisco against Monsanto. Filed by Dr. Robert H. Moser, a former CEO of NutraSweet, the suit - sponsored by the American Diabetes Association - charges Monsanto, NutraSweet and Rumsfeld with misrepresenting the facts of aspartame to the public while fully understanding its dangers. The case never went to trial.

In Japan and Canada, diabetics and others wanting to control calories use Stevia, a plant extract that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Unlike sugar, Stevia does not trigger a rise in the blood glycemic levels of diabetics. Unfortunately, the FDA has so far refused to approve Stevia for use in the U.S., and has in fact banned its import (reportedly at the request of Monsanto's NutraSweet division).

In 1992, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) petitioned the FDA to approve Stevia, and provided hundreds of documents showing that the plant extract was remarkably safe. In July of 1992, the FDA rejected the AHPA petition, requesting more information. When asked what kind of information would be considered relevant, the FDA replied: "Well, this may sound flippant, but we'll know it when we see it."

It is apparently the end of the subject, at least as far as the FDA is concerned, and who are we, mere consumers, to disagree with the FDA? After all, what sweeter dreams can there be than multi-billion dollar profits by a corporation vested in the deep pockets of the Washington lobby machine?

Disclosure: I don't own Monsanto stock.