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Posts Tagged ‘Myths’

Aspartame: One Lump or Two?

Debbie Schmidt, RD

Artificial sweeteners were supposed to solve all the problems… poor health, weight gain, even diabetes …  I mean, it’s “sugar free” and sugar is the bad guy, right?

After 30 years of living with artificial sweeteners, what do you think – has the sugar free/lite/reduced sugar road led to better health, weight loss, and less diabetes?

We aren’t necessarily healthier, we weigh more than ever (including our children), and we have more diabetes and pre-diabetes (including our children).

Just like research that now says butter is better than margarine, and an egg or more a day is fine, research suggests artificial sweeteners don’t work, haven’t worked, and aren’t safe.  But unlike eggs and butter, artificial sweeteners are not real – they are a chemical concoction that purports to be “healthy.” Their claims have the support of government safety board’s around the world.  Even in the face of research that questions aspartame’s safety, it doesn’t seem to matter.  And that causes me, a registered dietitian, a great deal of concern.

Here’s why I think you need to get rid of artificial sweeteners:

1) Aspartame has never been proven safe. Most scientists were in agreement that it was not safe, per the initial research that resulted in brain tumors in monkeys in the 1960s and 70s, and strongly advised it should not be approved for use as an additive.  Why was it allowed in the food supply? A new FDA commissioner reversed the sentiment of scientists once sworn in (1981), and approved its use.  At first it was allowed in limited foods, but a few years later, it was allowed in all foods. You can view this youtube video for the full story.

2)  Research is biased. In 2000, of the 174 studies on aspartame, 100% of industry-funded research showed only positive results, confirming aspartame’s safety, while 92% of the non-industry-sponsored independent research (not funded by the companies that own the artificial sweeteners or their interests) resulted in negative problems/safety concerns.

3) Complaints are numerous. The FDA used to collect and organize food additive complaints, but in 1992 stopped doing so.  According to Dr. Hull’s website, between 78 and 85% of all complaints the FDA received was related to aspartame intake.  Keep in mind there are 92 various symptoms associated with aspartame use. These are well documented online.  The top complaints include headaches/migraines and dizziness.  There are many other complaints, including uncontrolled twitching, temporary blindness, seizures, mental health disturbances (increases the severity of existing depression/anxiety/etc), rashes, and can make existing conditions worse, such as Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia.

After one of my in-class artificial sweetener discussions at Northern Virginia Community College, a student went home and told her husband he should quit his 7 to 8 can-a-day diet soda habit.  Why? He suffered from debilitating migraines, to the point of missing work, requiring a dark room, peace and quiet, for about seven years. An extensive medical work up that included an MRI was scheduled the following week.  She never knew of an association between aspartame consumption and migraines, and thought the first step before expensive tests were done, the least he could do was quit drinking diet sodas.   He agreed to a two-week moratorium, and found that within that time, that his headaches WENT AWAY.  My student reported this to the class, and was stunned when she realized in all of his 7 years of doctor visits, not one had ever asked him about his diet habits.

4) It is dangerous. Aspartame is made of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine, both found in foods and both needed by the body but not in “free” form) and a preservative called methanol which breaks down to formaldehyde in the body (and is slowly excreted).  For those who have forgotten what formaldehyde is, it is an embalming agent, a poison, and a mere ½ teaspoon can harm health, and only one teaspoon can kill you.

Part of the reason aspartame was released in limited foods in the beginning was because of the problem of breakdown – the methanol breaking down to formaldehyde.  Diet drinks stored in warehouses in the heat of Arizona, for example, were at high risk of this.  That kind of risk had to be fixed first (according to information this wasn’t fixed but the FDA still granted aspartame unlimited use in all foods, even though breakdown of methanol occurs at temps over 86 F)

I’ve collected a list of potential dangers:

  • Quantities of aspartic acid destroy brain neurons, and are associated with brain lesions.  Research done in the early 1970s by Dr. Olney found that aspartic acid caused “holes” in the brains of mice.  Searle, who owned aspartame, forgot to mention this until after its approval in 1981.
  • Phenylalanine is found in the brain, and is a precursor to neurotransmitters, but high levels of this amino acid in free form reduces serotonin, thereby increasing depression and schizophrenia, and according to the Natural News website, increases risk of seizures (Dr. Conneally, 2008 article called Aspartame: Is the sweet taste worth the harm?).

Here is a case that is too far-fetched to be true.  Unfortunately it is. Diane Fleming is in a Virginia prison for killing her husband nearly 10 years ago.  Only thing is, she didn’t.  Methanol did. Her husband drank diet sodas (about 8 a day), used sports drinks mixed with creatine (left in the garage), didn’t increase his water intake, and was on several pharmaceuticals.  He went into a coma after not feeling well.  After he died a few days later, doctors determined he died of methanol poisoning.  Diane was accused of spiking his sports drinks with windshield washer fluid (even though she didn’t have any in the home nor had purchased any).  Because aspartame is safe, it is hard to prove that the breakdown products sold everywhere caused his death, not her.  She has been in prison for over 7 years.

5)    They do not really help control intake or weight. Some research suggests they increase hunger. A study by Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio (June, 2005) found that the more diet drinks consumed, the greater the weight.  “What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher.” Full article

If you use aspartame or any artificial sweetener, why not go for the real stuff.  If you need a sweetener, use sugar – organic, raw, or regular.  One packet has just 16 calories. Or consider Stevia (liquid herbal sweetener).  In packaged foods, sugar cane or beet is preferred.

I’d love to hear your experiences with aspartame, especially if you found relief once you stopped using it, or, if you totally agree or disagree with my thoughts.

As Mercola says, “Now that you are aware of the problems with aspartame, inform others of the symptoms of aspartame poisoning.”

For more information read on:
An independent Italian study by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) in 2005 found that lesser than expected amounts of aspartame, fed to pregnant mice, resulted in increased rates of leukemia/lymphoma in their babies.  It also found a statistically insignificant increase in malignant brain tumors (although the tumors were only found in babies of aspartame-fed mothers).  As the intake was increased, so were the health problems. A follow up ERF study in 2007 reproduced the same results – the more aspartame given to rats, the greater the risk of leukemia/lymphoma in the baby rats.

Neither of these studies was well received.  In fact, in the US in 2007, the FDA reaffirmed the “safety” of aspartame, condemning the studies in the process, declaring that aspartame was NOT a carcinogen.  The US referenced a human study (2006) by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which looked at the habits of 500,000 Americans over a 5 year period (1995-2000).  It was an observational study conducted on volunteers 50-71 years old with an average consumption of 200 mg of aspartame a day or about a 12-ounce can of a diet soda (a few volunteers had as much 3400 mg).   Apparently the 2106 people in the study diagnosed with lymphoma or leukemia at the study’s end was determined to be “unrelated” to aspartame consumption.

Curious, I wanted to find out what the cause and risk of lymphoma is, and I found a 2001 article entitled, “Lymphoma rate continues to baffle researchers.” Back in 1991 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was an emerging epidemic, and researchers didn’t know why.  Fast forward a decade and researchers continue to be baffled by this cancer.  This type of lymphoma is in the number six cause of cancer, with a survival rate of 51 percent.  I’m curious why the NCI thought their 2106 cases were “unrelated” to aspartame when it seems they aren’t exactly sure what the cause of these cancers are.

Searle (the patent of aspartame at the time), had been trying since the early 1970s to get their sweetener into foods. It came close in 1974, but was blocked by a lawsuit.  There was good reason why it was blocked – it was deemed very unsafe since it led to brain tumors in animal studies.

From what I’ve read, no scientist, not even the FDA scientists, wanted aspartame.  But that changed several years later, when, in early 1981, a new Reagan-appointee, Commissioner Dr. Hull, replaced Dr. Goyan, who was ready to ban aspartame due to this objectionable safety.  But that didn’t happen.  Aspartame was deemed safe and would enter the food market in stages.  Many doctors and groups tried the legal route, like Dr. Elsas, a pediatric professor, who testified to Congress in 1985 that aspartame was a teratogen and could trigger birth defects and mental retardation, but nothing was able to stop this artificial sweetener from entering the food supply.

Give Me Choline Or Give Me Death

Give Me Choline Or Give Me Death

When you go to culinary school they teach you how to cook, but you don’t learn anything about the nutritional value of the food you’re cooking. After graduating, I knew how to make the food taste great, I just had no idea how my body used what I was feeding it. So, last semester I took a nutrition course at Northern Virginia Community College – a pre-requisite for the nursing program – I was surrounded by people who knew a LOT more about biology and physiology than I did. However, the course was taught by a fantastic instructor, Debbie Schmidt, a Registered Dietitian with years of clinical experience, who made the course material very easy to understand. For anyone who’s interested, I’d highly recommend taking a course like this. In fact, I think it should be a required class for all junior high school students in the country – but that’s the subject of another blog post.

My favorite assignment was our vitamin project, where we had the opportunity to choose a vitamin or nutrient and conduct some research. I chose choline which is a conditionally essential nutrient. A conditionally essential nutrient is a nutrient vital for proper body function – in other words, your body requires food sources of pure choline or foods containing betaine, which can be converted to choline. It was startling to learn how vitally important choline is to the body, especially since I had never heard of it before.

Not only is choline essential in lipid and cholesterol metabolism, but there are studies to suggest that the oxidation of choline will reduce the bodies homocysteine levels which have been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. There are linkages between inadequate choline levels with neuromuscular disorders, dementia (Alzheimer’s disease) and overall cognitive function. There also have been some studies to suggest that it reduces chronic inflammation in the body. Having inflammatory arthritis, I find this extremely interesting – to indulge in my personal story further, it was curious to note that methotrexate, the first drug suggested to me for my condition, has a negative influence on choline in the body and not surprisingly, one must be off of this drug for at least six months before healthy conception can take place – and the doctor NEVER mentioned monitoring my choline intake while on the drug – here are two great article to read about the linkages between choline and robust fetal neuro-development and choline’s importance in overall health:

Oregon State University

The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and Adequate Intakes (AI) of choline for men and women are as follows:
Men – 550mg
Women – 425mg – some physicians even recommend 850mg for pregnant and lactating women!

The Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for choline: 3.5g

Here are some choline-rich foods:
Beef Liver (3oz) – 355.5mg
Egg (approx 2oz or 1 large egg – 125.5 mg
Beef Steak (3oz) – 66.4 mg
Bacon (3 slices) – 125mg
Salmon (3oz) – 65mg
Milk (8oz) – 40mg

Here are two great articles featuring studies about the benefits of eating eggs, liver, and pork:

1. Science News: Eat Bacon and Eggs
2. : Choline For Treating High Cholesterol In Blood

These foods contain betaine which can be converted to choline:
Green Beans (1 cup) – 340mg
Cauliflower (3/4 cup) – 38.7mg
Cabbage (1 cup) – 250mg
Wheat Germ (2T) – 21.3 mg
Almonds (1/2 cup) – 25mg
Edamame (1 cup) – 56mg

Overall, I am completely terrified and appalled that there is so much misinformation about the importance of foods like eggs, liver, and pork. These foods have been demonized for my entire life and now I learn that not only are they high in a nutrient called choline, but that this nutrient is essential for the health of every cell membrane in the human body, cell signaling, nerve impulse transmission, lipid transport and metabolism, and reduction of homocysteine levels in the body. Most importantly, it’s vital to the healthy development of fetal brain tissue — why is no one crying “Give me Choline or give me death” from atop the Capitol dome?

Flying in the face of what has been hammered into our brains over the past 30 years is the idea that eating an egg, can actually help REDUCE a persons cholesterol, because it contains, choline, a vital nutrient, which actually makes it possible for the liver to package lipids and cholesterol as VLDL (very low density lipoprotein), transporting it out of the liver and to cells and tissue all over the body. It’s enough to make me want to raise heirloom chickens on my own grassy knoll and look-up recipes for succulent beef liver — which by the way, I’ve never cooked, or even considered eating.

The moral of the story of choline and basically everything that I learned in my nutrition class is that, eating REAL food is vitally important for health, and just plain feeling good everyday. With all the misinformation there is in the U.S. about food, I think it’s really a miracle that any of us are alive. It’s a real testament to the resilience of the human body — what a miraculous machine!

Interesting sources –