SANTA FE - The state Environmental Improvement Board has rejected an effort by a Santa Fe gallery owner to outlaw the artificial sweetener aspartame in New Mexico. "In light of our attorney's advice and as the petition is currently written, a citizens' board is not the appropriate venue to take on an aspartame ban," Gay Dillingham, head of the seven-member board, said Thursday.
Aspartame, sold under the brand names of NutraSweet and Equal, was approved as a food additive in 1981 and is now found in thousands of products, including diet sodas.
Critics contend it is associated with various health problems and cancer. The FDA ruled in 1996 that a purported link between aspartame and brain tumors "just doesn't hold up."
In January, the EIB delayed hearings it had begun in July 2005 to discuss whether to ban aspartame. The board said it wanted to wait for an opinion by Attorney General Patricia Madrid about whether the panel had the power to outlaw or require warning labels on products containing the sweetener.
It held a five-day hearing a year ago on the issue after Santa Fe gallery owner Stephen Fox began a campaign to ban the substance, which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The 2006 Legislature tabled a bill that would have banned aspartame in New Mexico.
Dillingham said Fox could revise his petition and return to the Environmental Improvement Board, but Fox said he would not do that.
"The first petition was perfect," Fox said. "The (corporations that make the substance) abnegated the regulatory powers in New Mexico to protect food products. What a loss for New Mexico."
Fox refused an offer by the board in May to change the way he wrote his petition. The board outlined possible options that would not require statewide labeling or bans, such as holding hearings to review scientific evidence, then petitioning the FDA if the findings raised concerns.
More than 100 toxicological and clinical studies have been done on the sweetener's safety. The FDA is reviewing a recent Italian study that linked cancer in rats to aspartame. The European Food Safety Authority found problems with the Italian study and continues to call aspartame safe.