Aspartame: 100 Times Sweeter Than Sugar, But is it Safe?
We Americans…we are always looking for the shortcut, the inside track, the one pill solution to every problem. We want world peace resolved in a 30-minute sitcom and expect complicated medical problems to be solved with a clever review of an MRI.
Equally unrealistic is our expectation that there exists some Promised Land of guilt-free, sugar-free candies and desserts that allow us to keep eating anything we want. In fact, we want this fantasy so badly that we are willing to overlook little things like brain tumors, seizures, joint problems, and even death.
Those and 92 other dangerous side effects come from a commonly used artificial sweetener with a sordid history of poor research, cover-ups and other nonsense. But that hasn’t stopped this toxic poison from invading thousands of different foods and beverages we eat every day.
What is Aspartame…
Back in 1965, while people were protesting the Vietnam War and rocking out to the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, scientist James Schlatter tripped over one of today’s most commonly used and accepted chemical concoctions: aspartame.
While recrystallizing a chemical compound (aspartylphenylalanine-methyl-ester), some of the powder spilled and got onto Schlatter’s fingers. Not realizing his, he licked his fingers inadvertently and noticed the sweet taste.
Four years later, in 1969, the Journal of the American Chemical Society reported on aspartame, discussing the “accidental discovery of an organic compound with a profound sucrose (table sugar) like taste.”1
Sugar-like taste is an understatement. Aspartame is 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, depending on concentration. But what, exactly, is this chemical sweetener?
A Sweet Mess…
Whether you are talking about the little yellow packets of Equal or NutraSweet, aspartame remains a laboratory creation. It is composed of three elements: aspartic acid (40 percent), phenylalanine (50 percent), and methanol (10 percent).
Both aspartic acid and phenylalamine are amino acids, which sounds good, right? Not really. See, aspartic acid is a known excitotoxin, meaning it overstimulates your nervous system.
Phenylalamine is the precursor to tyrosine, which is used to make excitatory neurotransmitters. (Notice a pattern here?) Excitatory transmitters energize you and speed up process in your body.
Now add in the methanol. Methanol is used to make formaldehyde, which is a colorless, poisonous gas. It is commonly used to make resin adhesives, paint, disinfectants, and embalming fluid. Ah, yeah. And if you drink it straight, you can go blind.
Mix them all together and this combination has been found to have potent excitatory effects on brain chemistry, often leading to a whole host of health problems, including headaches, dizziness, anxiety, and depression.
Clearly, the “is aspartame safe” question is a resounding NO. So how is it that aspartame is even legal? Tricky maneuvering seems to be the answer.
The Methanol-Laced Diet Soda…
In 1973, pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle and Company petitioned the FDA for approval of aspartame as an artificial sweetener. They submitted study after study “proving” its safety. But there was one issue…the studies were “single dose” studies.
This means that they were able to show that using aspartame daily, even in high doses, was safe. The issue was, the duration of the studies. They were frequently short, perhaps one to three months. This point was not lost on FDA physicians.
In fact, a Dr. Martha M. Freeman from the FDA Division of Metabolic and Endocrine Drug Products is quoted as saying, “Although it was stated that studies were also performed with diketopiperazine [DKP] an impurity which results from acid hydrolysis of Aspartame, no data are provided on this product.” She goes on to say, “It is not feasible to extrapolate results of such single dose testing to the likely condition of use of Aspartame as an artificial sweetener.”2
A second researcher, Dr. Matalon, takes it even further and compares aspartame to cigarettes, positing, “Let us say cigarettes were invented today, and you give 20 people two packs a day and after six weeks, no one has cancer, would you safe that it was safe? That’s what they did with NutraSweet.
In 1974, Dr. J. Richard Crout, then acting director of the FDA Bureau of Drugs evaluated 113 studies submitted by G.D. Searle regarding aspartame. He concluded, “The information submitted for our review was limited to narrative clinical summaries and tabulated mean values of laboratory studies. No protocols, manufacturing controls information or preclinical data were provided. Such deficiencies in each area of required information precluded a scientific evaluation of the clinical safety of this product….”
Yet, aspartame was approved for use in dry goods on July 26, 1974. But only briefly. Dismayed by serious issues in 13 of the studies regarding genetic mutation, as well as outrage from a public-interest group and concerns from Dr. John Olney, a neuropathologist who had connected aspartame with brain lesions in mice, FDA commissioner Alexander Schmidt froze the approval.
He then ordered a task force to examine the safety of aspartame. In March 1976, the task force presented their findings. It didn’t look good for G.D. Searle and aspartame. The task force had major issues with the types and quality of studies Searle had performed.
Specifically, FDA Lead Investigator and Task Force Team Leader, Phillip Brodsky went so far as to say he had never seen anything as bad as G.D. Searle’s studies.
Seems clear cut, right? Wrong.
After a series of legal and political maneuverings that are confusing at best and unethical at worst, the FDA changed its position and, in March 1979, said that Searle’s aspartame studies could be considered.
Not that it mattered, because in 1980, the Public Board of Inquiry voted unanimously to reject aspartame until more studies were conducted regarding aspartame and brain tumors.
A few studies were conducted by Searle, and in January 1981, they reapplied for the approval of aspartame. On May 18, 1981, three of five scientists on the FDA approval panel raised issues with aspartame. They included concerns that the brain tumor data was “worrisome.” They also felt some of the data had been fabricated.2
At this point, they inexplicably brought in a toxicologist to weigh in, bringing the panel to a total of six members. After pressure to come to a resolution quickly, the panel was split three to three regarding the approval of aspartame.
Using this information, then FDA commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., overruled the Public Board of Inquiry and approved aspartame for use in dry goods on July 18, 1981. Two years later, it was also approved for use in carbonated drinks (i.e. diet soda).
Fast forward to 1996, when the FDA gave aspartame blanket approval as a “general purpose sweetener,”3 despite on-going concerns regarding its habitual, long-term use, and long list of side effects.
This is particularly odd when you consider that 75 percent of all adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA are due to aspartame!!!!4
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the FDA has been required to keep of list of reactions and related aspartame side effects…all 92 of them. They include:
- Headaches and seizures,5
- Vision loss,
- Hearing loss,
- Joint pain, and
- Breathing difficulties.
And these issues are mild compared to the other dangers of aspartame consumption. Turns out, many conditions are worsened or even brought on by aspartame, including cancer,6 brain tumors,7 Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Weight GAIN, Not Weight Loss…
But the aspartame dangers don’t end there. Evidence also suggests that aspartame doesn’t even do what it’s touted to do: aid in weight loss. In fact, it very likely may have the complete opposite effect!
And, according to the January 1997 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, aspartame and sucralose may in fact cause weight gain.8 Researchers divided 14 women into three groups. One group was given four aspartame-sweetened lemonades; one received four sucrose (or sugar) sweetened lemonade, and the third group received carbonated mineral water on three separate days.
Researchers found that the group that drank the aspartame-sweetened lemonade ate more calories in the two days that followed, as compared to those women in the regular lemonade and water groups. Additionally, the majority of those additional calories came from carbohydrates.
Interestingly, there was no difference in appetite ratings between the groups. In other words, while the “diet” lemonade didn’t increase calories during the day of consumption, it clearly led to greater intake of food, particularly carbohydrates, in the days that followed. So much for “diet.”
Step Away From the Packets…
So, what do you do? Do you trust the government’s flip-flopping on a chemical compound that has proven, documented health risks and concerns? One that doesn’t even deliver on the promise of having your cake and eating it too? Um, no way.
Two amino acids and formaldehyde do not a natural product make.
We say pass on the packets and the possible risk of aspartame poisoning and its toxic symptoms. For a sweet boost, opt for stevia instead.
This naturally sweet herb comes in both powdered and liquid forms and is the only sugar replacement that has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity rather than decrease it.9 Which means you can use it to sweeten anything your heart desires, without losing your soul.
1Mazur, RH et al. Structure-taste relationship of some dipeptides. J Am Chem Soc. 1969 May 7;91(10):2684-91.
2Constantine, A and Gordon, G. History of aspartame. http://www.wnho.net/history_of_aspartame.htm. Posted 2004 Mar 12.
3Kovacs, B. Artificial Sweeteners. www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=81475.
4Mercola, J. Aspartame Dangers and Side Effects. http://aspartame.mercola.com/.
5Humphries, P et al. Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008;62:41-62.
6Soffritti, M et al. Life-span exposure to low doses of aspartame beginning during prenatal life increases cancer effects in rats. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Sep;115(9):1293-7.
7Olney, JW et al. Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame? J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov;55(11):1115-23.
8Lavin, JH et al. The effect of sucrose- and aspartame-sweetened drinks on energy intake, hunger and food choice in female, moderately restrained eaters. Int J Obes. 1997 Jan;21(1):37-42.
9Lailerd, N et al. Effects of stevioside on glucose transport activity in insulin-sensitive and insulin-resistant rat skeletal muscle. Metab. Clin. Exp. 2004 Jan;53(1):101-7.
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