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Eat to Live: Lowdown on pseudo-sweets

By JULIA WATSON, UPI Food Writer

WASHINGTON, May 1 (UPI) -- This week could be make-or-break for aspartame. The artificial sweetener, invented in 1965 and approved for human consumption by the USDA in 1981, has had a checkered health-report history that should be settled on May 5. This is the date the European Food Safety Authority will release its review of a study by the Ramazzini Foundation of Bologna, Italy.

Scientists at the institute's cancer research center rang alarm bells last year when they announced that their study showed that consumption by rats of aspartame at levels "very near those to which humans can be exposed" led to an increase in lymphomas and leukemias in the females.

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In a newer study, they found a link between lifelong aspartame consumption in rats and cancer of the kidney and peripheral nerves, Foodnavigator.com reports.

Around 6,000 products worldwide are sweetened with aspartame. You can find it in diet sodas and powdered drinks, yogurt, ready-made desserts, hot chocolate, chewing gum, candy, some pharmaceuticals -- sugar-free cough medicine and chewable vitamins, and of course those little packages that come with your restaurant coffee.

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The industry, represented by the Aspartame Information Center, disputes the claims of the Ramazzini and other studies. In the sweetener's defense, it points to 200 other investigations, including one from the National Cancer Institute. This tracked 300,000 men and 200,000 women between 50 and 69 and found no statistically significant link between aspartame and leukemias, brain tumors or lymphomas.

G.D. Searle, the chemical giant that originally exclusively patented aspartame, was bought in 1985 by Monsanto. These are the people who have given us genetic modification of crops and animal feed.

In the United Kingdom, environmental groups and a major national newspaper whipped the British public into a fever of anti-GM foods that resulted in a moratorium on importing and growing GM crops right across Europe. And here comes this aspartame study right of out Europe.

While U.S. labeling laws don't require the specifying of GM ingredients, since April 2004 in Britain any food that comes from a genetically modified source must say so. The response from the British public to GM foods has been so intense that the nation's prime supermarket chains have refused to stock fresh and processed GM food products, flours, oils and glucose syrups. This despite the fact that the country's Food Standards Agency has exempted meat fed with GM animal feed, cheese produced from a GM enzyme and milk and eggs that have come from GM-fed stock.

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This week's European aspartame study may conclude that there is no cause for worry. Since it accounts for 62 percent of the artificial sweetener market (saccharin is the leader) that would be cause for celebration among producers. But Americans would do well to pay as much attention to what they eat as Europeans do.

Even if aspartame is given the green light, isn't it always better for our health to stick to natural foodstuffs? If you want to sweeten your dish or your drink, go ahead -- use sugar or honey. Just do it in moderation. If you want to stay away from sugar on your grapefruit or in your coffee, don't use a false sweetener. Take the plunge and give up sweeteners entirely. It's hard for the first few days. Then suddenly the true flavor of what you're putting in your mouth shines through and you realize how much you gain.

Just a thin slice of this sugar-syrup cake will satisfy your sweet tooth. Don't eat and feel guilty -- enjoy it as a rare treat.

-- 6 ounces all purpose flour

-- 4 ounces butter

-- 4 tablespoons milk

-- 6 ounces sugar

-- 2 eggs

-- zest of one scrubbed lemon

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-- juice of one lemon

-- 3 tablespoons sugar

-- Preheat oven to 350 F.

-- Beat all but the last two ingredients together in a large bowl for 2 minutes.

-- Butter a loaf tin and line its base with buttered greaseproof paper.

-- Pour in the batter and bake on center shelf for 1 hour.

-- Take out of the oven and stab the cake down with a knife or slash it across the top.

-- Mix the lemon juice and sugar together and pour over the top.

-- Leave to cool, the remove from tin.

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E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com

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