QUESTION - Can you describe fetal alcohol syndrome?

ANSWER - The diagnosis of "fetal alcohol syndrome" (FAS) includes symptoms in three distinct areas. First, severe growth retardation either before or after birth. Second, central nervous system problems, among them tremors, poor sucking reflexes, hyperactivity, and attention deficits. And finally, at least two characteristic facial abnormalities, such as narrow eye width, a thin upper lip, a short upturned nose with underdevelopment of the groove between the base of the nose and the top of the upper lip, and a general underdevelopment of the midfacial area. Children with FAS generally have IQ's ranging between 68 and 70.FAS is the most extreme of the conditions associated with excessive alcohol consumption. There are, however, at least two other categories describing alcohol-associated problems. "Alcohol-related birth defects" (ARBD) are complications of pregnancy or birth defects attributable to alcohol after all other known explanations have been taken into account. And "possible fetal alcohol effects" (FAE) are birth defects observed in children of women known to have consumed significant amounts of alcohol during pregnancy that are likely, though not definitely attributable, to birth defects.

Sadly, evidence suggests that cases run in families. While the incidence worldwide is estimated to be slightly less than 2 cases per 1,000 children, in an analysis of 300 children with either FAS or ARBD, among older siblings the incidence of FAS was 170 per 1,000 live births; of ARBD, 417 per 1,000 live births. Among younger siblings the figures are still worse.

According to a recently reported study, the critical period during which a fetus is most vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol is around the time of conception. At that point, most women are unaware that they are pregnant. Yet vulnerability does not end there: Studies suggest that a fetus remains at risk well beyond that time.

In experimental animals, alcohol causes abnormalities in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning.

QUESTION - Is it true that a new artificial sweetener has been approved for use by the FDA?

ANSWER - Yes. To be known as "Sunette," it is a chemical compound with the formidable name acesulfame (pronounced ay-see-sul-fame) K (the chemical symbol for potassium). It is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has been approved by the FDA for use as a table-top sweetener and as an ingredient in chewing gum, dry drink mixes, gelatins, puddings, and non-dairy creamers.

The FDA says that animal studies have failed to uncover any untoward symptoms associated with acesulfame K. But the agency has delayed approving it for other uses until further reviews are completed. On the other hand, the FDA has approved an expanded use for aspartame in several foods, including yogurt-like snacks and refrigerated flavored milk drinks.