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MercolaWatch: The Sweet Misery documentary

by Josh DeWald

July 5, 2013

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Donate I have intentionally been trying to avoid posting about aspartame, but Joe Mercola recently posted a reference to the relatively old Sweet Misery anti-aspartame documentary which I have already seen more times that I would like and responded to. This documentary features interviews with the main players in the anti-aspartame movement, who make statements that simply are not supported by the evidence. On my other blog, I have a 2-part "fact check" (Part 1, Part 2)of the documentary.

If you have seen the documentary and read the article I urge you to take a look at my existing responses, but here I will offer a quick rundown of some of the key claims and responess.

"Sweet Misery includes many heartfelt conversations with aspartame victims...."

This line about summarizes the bulk of the documentary: anecdotes. It features virtually nothing in the way of science, but is filled with stories from people that believe that they have been harmed by aspartame or from "experts" that can explain why someone would be harmed from aspartame. But it generally amounts to conspiracy theories or hypotheses that have already been studied and rejected by the scientific community.

Multiple Sclerosis

While Mercola only briefly mentions it, the documentary spends a lot of time discussing the alleged link between aspartame and multiple sclerosis (as well as some other disorders for which scientists honestly do not know exactly what causes it or how to cure it, such as fibromalgia).

This is in my Part 1, but there is simply no evidence that would like MS with aspartame. The only mention of aspartame on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's is on their page "Old Theories That Have Been Disproved". Suffice to say they do not support the association and do not advise their members against aspartame. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation also has a page "Examining the Safety of Aspartame" where they essentially call it out as all starting with an internet hoax post from "Nancy Merkle" and note that "aspartame appears to be quite safe" (aside from possible mild side effects in some people).

As to the multiple claims in the documentary, and Internet-at-large, saying that when they stopped consuming aspartame their symptoms went away, it turns out that the most common form of MS, known as Relapsing-Remitting, is actually known to go into spontaneous remission for months, years, or even completely

Brain Tumors

The documentary spends some time discussing the famous study by JW Olney to the effect that there was a dramatic rise in brain tumors following the introduction of aspartame into general use. The National Cancer Institute and French Food Safety Authority both slammed the study. The National Cancer Institute notes that had Olney included more years from before the introduction of aspartame, the graphs would have clearly shown brain cancers rising "8 years prior" to the introduction of aspartame, and this mainly in older people 70 or older. The French authority echoes that, adding that brain cancers actually stabilised in the mid-80s when aspartame came out.

So deeper looks at the data just don't support the link between aspartame and brain cancer.

Blood Cancer (Lymphoma)

I don't recall it from the documentary, but Mercola mentions the recent lymphoma study which he says finds a "clear association" between aspartame and lymphoma. I wrote about this study when he originally cited it. I will simply requote the study author's own conclusions:
Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects and occurrence of an apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation.
Brigham and Women's Hospital, who's PR department promoted the study actually essentially apologized before it was even published:
It has come to our attention that the scientific leaders at Brigham and Women's Hospital did not have an opportunity, prior to today, to review the findings of the paper,[...] Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story
"Clear association"? Hardly. But Mercola and others will likely continue to cite it as strong evidence, without any sort of caveat.

Methanol Toxicity

In Mercola's notes, he discusses the claim that humans are incapable of properly processing methanol and, therefore, aspartame is dangerous. Amazingly, Mercola does not even do the typical anti-aspartame play that all the other foods that have methanol as a breakdown product (such as fruits, vegetables, wine) are "special".

Methanol (methyl alcohol) is of course dangerous when taken in large acute doses. There does not appear to be any build-up whatsoever of formic acid in the body (Stegink 1978) (it is excreted in urine) for normal consumption of aspartame. Only someone with the inability to process the formic acid/formate out of their system would be reasonably expected to have issues with aspartame and products that breakdown into methanol. I discuss this in the "Part 1" linked above as well as in another article (which was actually my first on aspartame, and now has quite a few comments on it of anti- and pro-aspartame folks battling it out which turns out to be quite interesting).

Thousands of complaints, 90+ symptoms

Another of the standard tactics of the anti-aspartame folks is to state that there are "more than 10,000 complaints" involving 90+ symptoms (usually it's cited as 92, but Mercola says 91). As readers of this blog are probably now aware, filing a report with the Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS, with vaccine equivalent VAERS) is not even remotely equivalent to being evidence or proof of harm. They are merely data points. You can download them in fact (good luck finding aspartame listed, or on the "potential hazards" list), and have no use until properly analyzed and investigated. A 1992 investigation (making use of the actual patient data and their consumption patterns as well as direct "challenge tests") into the seizure-related AERS data found no association with aspartame.

Walton's list of "independent" studies against aspartame

I chuckle a little bit every time this list gets mentioned. The film has Walton himself mentioning it. If what he had found was in fact 97 studies against aspartame, that would be something. But he did not. Not even close. I classified the entries on a Google Spreadsheet and discussed in "Part 2" of my look at the documentary before as well as in a prior article on aspartame and formaldehyde. At best, five -- 2 on seizures, 1 on headaches, 1 a famous debunk'd study, and another was not able to be reproduced -- of them could be considered both peer-reviewed and relevant to aspartame. The rest are about methanol generically, find no harm (not sure why he includes these) or are just letters to the editor and case studies. I urge anybody who takes the documentary at face value on this point to look at the full list to see if it really represents evidence against aspartame.

Shenanigans during approval process

  • "Covered up" Waisman monkey study - Waisman actually died before the study was completed, but Searle still submitted the data they had to the FDA (so certainly not "covered up"). Seizures occurred in the medium and high dose groups (100 and 120x maximum daily intake). However, same can be induced using equivalent amounts of phenylalanine (one of the components of aspartame).

  • FDA commissioner "illegally" overruled Board of Inquiry decision - Not illegal, the Board of Inquiry is not a legal body (Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Subpart B, S. 13.30). The commissioner felt that there had been ample demonstration of safety. Additional details can be read in the Government Accounting Office's 1987 report on the approval process of aspartame.

  • "Clear conflict of interest" when Searle paid for independent analysis - FDA required them to pay for the study by UAREP. It was in no way sponsored by Searle.

  • Reagan's first executive order removed FDA's ability to prevent marketing of aspartame - This never happened (Federal Register).


As popular as it is, Sweet Misery is not an accurate portrayal of the scientific evidence regarding aspartame. It is full of anecdotes that do not stand up to scrutiny. It presents a series of conspiracy theories about the approval process, but offers no substantiation. I would recommend only watching the movie if you want to see what a long string of anecdotal evidence looks like (sincerely believed though they may be, I have no doubt about the honesty of the people portrayed in the film). The main part of the film I have not covered is the claim that Diane Fleming was wrongly convicted of murdering her husband via methanol poisoning (the documentary, not surprisingly, alleges that he was killed from aspartame in has gatorade and diet drinks).

by Josh DeWald

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