We often remember Rumsfeld as Bush’s Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006. However, he had been a Washington insider since the 1960s: elected to Congress in 1963, made Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, appointed as Counselor to the President in 1970, US Ambassador to Nato in 1973, White House Chief of Staff in 1974, and Secretary of Defense in 1975. His rise was simply meteoric. Of course, when Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Rumsfeld was out of a job. It didn’t take long for him to land on his feet though; in 1977, he took a job with Searle as their CEO. He would hold that role until 1985.
Getting FDA Approval
In 1980, things were looking bad for Searle’s objective of getting aspartame back on the market. Things changed abruptly when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Not only did Rumsfeld become a member of Reagan’s transition team, whilst still working for Searle, he also purportedly played a key role in persuading Reagan to appoint Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. as the new head of the FDA in April 1981. From there, the barriers all seemed to fall away for Searle and aspartame. According to some sources, Hayes was a friend of Rumsfeld’s.
Remember the FDA board of inquiry that concluded that Searle had not proved aspartame was safe for humans? Hayes first significant act as Head of the FDA was to overturn that ruling. Now this was a man with no expertise in artificial sweeteners. Yet, he determined that aspartame was now safe. Still, he even admitted that it may not be completely safe, “I’m not prepared to say there is no risk from aspartame-I’d say that for very few things. But I thought it had been demonstrated that there was not a significant risk.” So, with a stroke of a pen, aspartame was “safe” again for dry goods. A year later, Searle petitioned the FDA to grant permission for aspartame to be used in soda pop. This was duly granted in 1983. It is worth noting that Hayes resigned in disgrace from the FDA after Inspector General Richard P. Kusserow discovered Hayes had “received overlapping travel payments from the FDA and a private research center for a trip to Seattle…In addition, Kusserow found that Hayes had accepted free lodging from industry trade groups and free travel on aircraft owned by Hershey Foods Inc. and General Foods Corp.” This goes some way in determining the integrity of Hayes.
The rest, they say, is history. Ever since, aspartame has been legal in the US and its legality now extends to pretty much the whole world. There have been the odd campaign (e.g., an internet hoax in 1996) or study here or there to get it taken off the shelves but all has been in vain. Dr Morando Soffritti has worked for several years demonstrating a link between aspartame and cancer, but he has been dismissed by the majority of scientists. Given the sloppiness and possible corruption of Searle’s original studies, irony or ironies, critics have attacked Soffritti over the methodology of his research.
The FDA’s about-turn in 1981 is a massive red flag for anyone concerned about the safety of aspartame. Hayes, who was probably brought in by Rumsfeld, actually overruled his own experts at the FDA. He even admitted himself that aspartame may not be completely safe. That was enough for me ten years ago, and it’s enough for me now. Just think about the current scandals over oxycontin and fentanyl. These were known to be highly addictive, but the FDA approved them nonetheless. So did the rest of the world.
I suppose it’s possible that aspartame is safe despite the quite probably corruption in 1981. Maybe those scientists at the FDA got it wrong and Searle got it right despite their slipshod research. Even if I was not a paleo, my response to this would be – why take the risk?
“Low-Cal Aspartame: The New Kid in Town,” Science News 120, no. 4 (1981): 54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3965996.
“Controversy Over New Sweetener,” Science News 116, no. 6 (1979): 103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3964327
Sykes, Morgan. 2015. “THE ASPARTAME CONTROVERSY OF 1981 the Hidden Truth Behind the Not-so-sweet Artificial Sweetene”. The Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review 4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/vtuhr.v4i0.33
Soffritti, Morando et al. “The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24436139/
Soffritti, Morando. “Carcinogenicity of Aspartame: Soffritti Responds.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2430255/