Sweet somethings: the questions over aspartame

Aspartame: one lump or two?
Aspartame: one lump or two?

Consumers are a sucker for food and drinks that sate a sweet tooth, but don’t deliver on the calories. Promoted as, and accepted as a healthy lifestyle choice, we keep billion dollar food industries buoyant by selecting products touted as “zero”, “diet”, “low sugar”, “light” and “sugar free” over the high sugar alternatives.

Discovered serendipitously in 1965, by a German chemist developing an anti-ulcer drug for the company Searle aspartame was a chemical that caused much excitement as a potential saleable product. The resulting company brands of Nutrasweet and Equal quickly found eager buyers, and both companies have been sold on a number of times since.

Here we had essentially a protein that was 200 times sweeter than sugar, delivered negligible calories, didn’t cause tooth decay and was relatively cheap to produce. What’s not to like?

It took 16 years for the the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the product as a tabletop sweetener, the UK following a year later. 15 years passed before it was allowed to be used carte blanche in all industry food and drinks.

Now we find aspartame in every diet product imaginable, as well as in places you might not expect to: all diet drinks, weight loss meals and products, effervescent vitamins, cold and flu treatments, hot chocolate, chewing gum, toothpaste, orange squash, lite yoghurts and some flavours of crisps.

So – with this heaven-sent chemical – we can stuff our faces, happy in the knowledge that we will not gain weight and are making informed, healthy choices, right? Well…

Despite an industry selling the slim dream to us, and consumer trolleys packed with diet products, the developed world is fatter and unhealthier than ever before. Something has gone awry, or we are being given a bum steer.

Realistically, the companies selling you the diet products have no interest in your weight loss success. They would go out of business quite quickly if nobody needed to lose weight. In fact, data from a recent study has demonstrated that diet soft drink consumption is associated with increased waist circumference in humans. Dr H J Roberts – a US director of medical research and knighted the Order of St George for his professional and humanitarian efforts – has written many articles and books about this “ignored epidemic”.

Dr Roberts has stated in his lectures that once free of aspartame diet products, and with no significant increase in exercise, his patients lost an average of 19 pounds over a trial period.

In truth, the diet drinks that we opt for as a healthy and slim-line alternative actually increase our cravings for carbohydrate. The aspartame in diet drinks – often consumed by diabetics – may affect with blood sugar levels, with insulin being released and no sugar to process.

Other studies have shown that those using aspartame as a sweetener tend to gain weight through an increase in appetite (J E Blundell & A J Hill, The Lancet).

The reason the FDA took 16 years to approve the chemical was because of doubts over safety. There have been accusations that the laboratory data flawed and manipulated (tumours were reputedly cut out of mice in the study and not recorded, malignant tumours allegedly recorded as “benign”). In fact the data had been so distorted that it has since resulted in a criminal prosecution.

Should we be reassured by the industry telling us that aspartame is safe because it is the most studied food additive we have ever encountered? Dr Ralph Walton, a professor of psychiatry, carefully analysed each and peer reviewed the studies on aspartame. The outcome was this:

  • 74 industry funded studies – 100% found zero incidence of side effects
  • 90 independent studies – 90% found side effects and complications

The breakdown products of aspartame have been called neurological toxins by some. It is composed of formaldehyde, methanol (wood alcohol) and a dipeptide. The latter does occur naturally in our bodies. However, it doesn’t occur naturally in large amounts “floating” in the system. There is some evidence to suggest that the breakdown products of aspartame affect the neurotransmitters in the brain.

Formaldehyde converts to formic acid, which in turn causes metabolic acidosis. The methanol toxicity has been said to mimic, among other conditions, multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to be found on the web of MS sufferers and children with ADHD who have had a complete recovery when aspartame drinks were removed from their diet.

The transcript of a radio interview with neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock makes for interesting reading:

Interviewer: Dr Blaylock, we touched lightly on ADD and ADHD. What are learning disorders that aspartame can aggravate or even cause?

Dr Blaylock: Well, this is something that’s of a lot of concern to people that particularly work with ADD children and ADHD which is the hyperactive form of Attention Deficit Disorder. One of the persons involved is Dr. Keith Connors who has written the book called “Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affects Children.” In this book he talks about a four year old child who was drinking some aspartame sweetened rootbeer and just became berzerk. The child was hyperactive, violent, complaining of headaches and the doctor suggested to stop the NutraSweet sweetened rootbeer. The mother took it away, the child just returned to normal, pleasant, normal mentation, no headaches and she was kind of skeptical so she decided just to let this child start drinking it again. She did and the same thing happened. He gives case after case like this which if you examine what we’re talking about is actually doing double blind studies in single individual cases which demonstrate quite clearly that the only variable is the NutraSweet. So this is producing some ADHD type problems that are very clear.

Another study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that aspartame is a powerful neurotoxin: “The aim of this study was to discuss the direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, and we propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR 2000) and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning.”

It is thought that the toxins affect protein synthesis, neurotransmitters and cellular DNA – the genetic information within every single cell – and ultimately affect the way our brain uses amino acids. The symptoms associated with aspartame toxicity are varied and widespread, with many having a neurological connection. They can include: headaches, foggy thinking, poor short-term memory, nausea, vertigo, tinnitus, epilepsy, migraines, blurred vision, slurred speech, mood changes, eye problems, numbness and depression.

Depression is often treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) drugs, which optimise the use of available serotonin but aspartame is known to have the exactly opposite effect on serotonin. It could well have an adverse affect on mood.

The troops in the Gulf War were supplied with copious amounts of diet fizzy drinks, and drank huge volumes of the stuff. However, the drinks were stored on pallets in the searing heat. The unstable aspartame would have broken down (at 29.5C) into the neurotoxic substances mentioned. Gulf War Syndrome – a previously unrecognized but comprehensive list of unexplained symptoms – suffered by many of those who served their time in the Gulf, bears some resemblance to the list above.

According to the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network,the US Air Force has formally warned all pilots to refrain from consuming aspartame-sweetened diet drinks, as they found them linked to grand mal seizures, vertigo, heart disease, and suicidal depressions.

Aspartame has been linked with lymphoma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia, premature birth and chronic fatigue, among other things.

It can be difficult to separate the wood from the trees with regard to genuine peer-reviewed scientific studies and conspiracy theories.

There are certainly many studies that refute the toxic effect on humans, and there may some overkill on claimed disease associations, but there is enough medical and scientific evidence to raise a large question mark over the toxicity of the substance.

Craig Petray, the CEO of Nutrasweet, is adamant that his product is safe. When invited to comment on the outcome of the peer reviewed studies mentioned in this article, he was keen to cite the company’s medical affiliations: “Aspartame is safe. It has been tested for more than three decades, in more than 200 studies, with the same result: Aspartame is safe for use. Aspartame has been reviewed and determined to be safe by the FDA, Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization, EFSA and the regulatory bodies of over 100 countries.

“In addition, The American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Dietetic Association have reviewed research on aspartame and found it to be safe. Links to numerous other health organizations, which have confirmed the safety of aspartame, can be found at www.aspartame.org.”

Some scientists and medics agree, others disagree on the validity of some studies, and there is certainly a suggestion from anti-aspartame groups that there is collusion between some aspartame manufacturers and areas of the medical establishment.

It’s certainly an area worthy of a bit of research given you are likely ingesting the chemical unknowingly in many foods. If you take the time to read around the subject, you might well decide to make some changes. I for one will eschew diet food and drinks, and stick the finger to the big companies that seem to be happily profiting from making us fat and sick.

If this article has peaked your interest, Dr Blaylock and Dr H J
Roberts, have written books on Aspartame Poisoning.
 Dr Blaylock’s book is entitled Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’. Dr. H J Roberts, a diabetes specialist, 
has written a book entitled Defense Against Alzheimer’s Disease.

  • bellebrise

    Yes, but apart from all that?

    Just kidding, we’ve all known for years that aspartame kills rats.
    We’ve all known for years that caffeine causes hyperactivity.
    We’ve all known for years that cyclamates cause cancer (banned in US but OK in UK).
    Caramel in P*psi and C*ke causes cancer, allegedly.
    Not to mention tartrazine…

    The answer is to simply avoid anything with artificail ingredients.  Read the label.  Either make your own soft drinks or stick to 7-Up. 
    Researchers in a US Borstal in the 1950s caused riots just by giving the young male inmates Coca-Cola.

    Be sure to brush teeth. Soft (fizzy) drinks and sweets rot teeth.  Why schools give sweeties to kids in Scotland is beyond me – they are not allowed into English schools, even in lunch boxes…

  • A. Pedant

    This article has not “peaked” my interest. It’s certainly PIQUED it somewhat, though.

    • Mcquillan212

      Named and shamed! Inexcusable error, I know –  **crawls away to a dark cave..**