Originally appeared in The Independent
on 06 June 1999
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The most widely used sweetener in the world, found in fizzy drinks and sweets, is being made using a secret genetic engineering process, which some scientists claim needs further testing for toxic side-effects.

The use of genetic engineering to make aspartame has stayed secret until now because there is no modified DNA in the finished product. Monsanto, the pioneering GM food giant, which makes aspartame, insists that it is completely safe. But some scientists fear that not enough is known about the process of making it. One of the two elements that make up the sweetener can be produced by genetically engineered bacteria, and scientists say that they cannot rule out toxic side-effects.

The Independent on Sunday has found that Monsanto often uses genetically engineered bacteria to produce the sweetener at its US production plants. "We have two strains of bacteria- one is traditionally modified and one is genetically modified," said one Monsanto source. "It's got a modified enzyme. It has one amino acid different."

A Monsanto spokeswoman confirmed that aspartame for the US market is often made using genetic engineering. But sweetener supplied to British food producers is not. However, consumer groups say it is likely that some low-calorie products containing genetically engineered aspartame have been imported into Britain.

"Increasingly, chemical companies are using genetically engineered bacteria in their manufacturing process without telling the public," said Dr Erik Millstone, of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, and a member of the National Food Alliance.

MPs want the government to launch an inquiry to see how much US aspartame is coming into the UK. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, will this week write to Jeff Rooker, the Food Safety Minister, to ask him to ensure that US aspartame is labeled as genetically modified. "Monsanto's sweetener," he said, "has turned sour."

Aspartame is made by combining phenylalanine, which is naturally produced by bacteria, with another amino acid. To make the bacteria produce more phenylalanine, Monsanto has genetically engineered them.

"Whether such a contaminating compound will be toxic or not is entirely unknowable until empirical studies have been done to test toxicity," said Dr. John Fagan, a former genetic engineer who now heads Genetic ID, the world's leading GM test centre. "No such studies have been done, or at least they have not been placed in the public domain."

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