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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.