Aspartame: Dangers of This All-Too-Common Food Additive
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Aspartame: Dangers of This All-Too-Common Food Additive

Dr. Josh Axe — Food is Medicine
Aug 29, 2017

If you are experiencing conditions that could potentially be related to aspartame, it’s probably a good idea to abstain entirely and see if any symptoms alleviate on their own. This should be done under the supervision of a doctor.

[Food is Medicine] Few food additives have been studied with such scrutiny — or with more controversy — than that of aspartame. (Photo Credit: Dr. Josh Axe/ Food is Medicine)

Proponents of diet drinks claim that no adverse effects have been proven and that aspartame-laced products contribute to weight loss. On the other side of the coin, a large community of health-conscious, anti-aspartame health practitioners and consumers are convinced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has turned a blind eye to one of the most dangerous food additives ever discovered.

Not to give away the ending here, but you’ll find me 100 percent in that second camp of people. Aspartame is one of the worst artificial sweeteners you can ingest and has been associated with dozens of potential health risks.

The sweetener industry received a blow when a study was released in July 2017 connecting aspartame to an increased risk of heart disease and increased body mass index. Far from the small studies that are sometimes dismissed, this review included a total of almost 407,000 individuals with a median 10-year follow-up. (1)

Researchers discovered that there were not only no benefits from consuming “diet” foods and drinks containing these artificial sweeteners (known as “non-nutritive sweeteners,” since they offer no calories), but those were associated with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.”

Of course, a few smaller cohort studies did find weight loss to be a benefit — but, as is the norm for aspartame research, those were sponsored by industries benefiting from positive outcomes.

Do aspartame-sweetened products help you lose weight? No. Is aspartame safe? No. Does aspartame cause negative, sometimes dangerous side effects? Yes, absolutely. So let’s explore more about this dangerous food additive, how it came about and why you should stay away from it.

What Is Aspartame?

To understand why aspartame causes side effects, it’s important to first explain what it is and how it metabolizes when you drink or eat it.

What is aspartame made of?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, also referred to as Acesulfame potassium (K), AminoSweet®, Neotame®, Equal®, NutraSweet®, Blue Zero Calorie Sweetener Packets™, Advantame®, NutraSweet New Pink, Canderel®, Pal Sweet Diet®, and AminoSweet®, and it’s used in a variety of food and wellness products like diet soda, gum, candy and vitamins.

Almost immediately upon consuming aspartame, it breaks down into three chemical compounds: phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. (2)

Those first two components are amino acids. Methanol is known as “wood alcohol” and is known to be toxic in large doses, but the amount of methanol in one can of diet soda is about the same that naturally occurs in, say, a glass of grape juice.

Sounds safe, right? After all, don’t we need amino acids to survive? And methanol can’t be that bad if it’s in grape juice, too, can it?

Sadly, these arguments, used widely by companies that profit from the sale of aspartame, do not hold up.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid that can be toxic in high doses but generally recognized as safe in whole food products. However, when chemically bound to other compounds, like in aspartame, phenylalanine is absorbed almost immediately into the bloodstream rather than slowly via digestion.

Since this amino acid can cross the blood/brain barrier and functions as an excitotoxin when absorbed too quickly, it may potentially conflict with various neuronal processes. Just one diet soda raises the level of phenylalanine in the brain, causing serotonin levels to decrease. (3)

In at least one study, phenylalanine concentrations were higher in people with HIV, sepsis, cancer and undergoing trauma. (4)

Aspartic acid is a non-essential amino acid (your body makes it without having to ingest it). Normally, aspartic acid (aspartate) is important in the function of the nervous and neuroendocrine systems. (5)

Methanol is a wood alcohol that was not commonly ingested until the 20th century. It has no health benefits, but it’s particularly dangerous when consumed in aspartame.

How does the body process aspartame?

As I’ve pointed out, there is some concern about the way the body metabolizes the two amino acids from aspartame. Because of the way diet soda and other aspartame products are created, the amino acids they contain do not go through the normal process of enzyme breakdown and liberation, but instead absorb immediately into the bloodstream.

However, the more pressing concern comes from the methanol content in aspartame. Now, it is true that methanol is present in other food products, but in those cases, it is bound to pectin, a fiber commonly found in fruits. Generally, these bound pectin/methanol compounds are excreted safely through the normal digestive process.

In aspartame, methanol is bound (weakly, at that) to the phenylalanine molecule. One or two processes easily break that bond and create what is known as “free methanol.” In cases where the aspartame product has been kept in a hot environment over 85 degrees Fahrenheit (like a warehouse or hot truck), the bonds decompose before ever entering the body.

Free methanol then converts to formaldehyde, more commonly known as embalming fluid. Both methanol and formaldehyde are carcinogens in and of themselves. Formaldehyde has the unfortunate ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, one reason it is so detrimental to the body. Eventually, the formaldehyde can also turn into diketopiperazine, another known carcinogen.

Every animal other than humans converts formaldehyde to formic acid, a harmless substance. But humans don’t have the necessary enzyme for that change, which is one possible reason why animal studies don’t always represent the extent to which methanol impacts the body. This process in humans is called methyl alcohol syndrome. (6)

What now?

As you probably know, aspartame in diet soda and over 6,000 other products is still approved by the FDA after decades of research and adverse reactions. The FDA even encourages pregnant women to drink it!

One estimate created in 1996 for sufferers of aspartame symptoms calculated approximately 1.9 million recognized toxic reactions between 1982 and 1995. This number is complicated by the fact that many doctors do not recognize aspartame toxicity as a legitimate cause of health problems since it is supposedly a safe product for all people. (7)

As of 1995, the list of reported symptoms submitted to the FDA included headaches, dizziness, mood problems, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, seizures, memory loss, breathing problems, and various others. (8)

Aspartame (now owned by Ajinomoto) is now being marketed under new names in order to further mislead consumers. (9)

This has occurred even after aspartame poisoning has been implicated in the development of Gulf War syndrome, a number of neurological and physical symptoms of veterans in the U.K. and U.S. Gulf War. Troops were given large quantities of diet soft drinks that had often been in high-temperature conditions, suggesting they had already broken down into free methanol and formaldehyde compounds before they were consumed.

Still, we are told by agencies designed to protect us that aspartame is safe for people of all ages. The only exception to this is those suffering from the rare disease phenylketonuria, a birth defect that disrupts the body’s ability to process phenylalanine.

Products that Contain Aspartame

Aspartame is found in over 6,000 individual products, making it virtually impossible to list them all here. However, I hope that understanding the impact of nutrition on your health has made you an avid label-reader. If you consider purchasing any of the following types of items, check the label — you’re likely to find aspartame listed.

The following foods, beverages and medications commonly contain aspartame: (10, 11)

  • Diet soda
  • Sugar-free breath mints
  • Sugar-free (or “no sugar added”) cereals
  • Sugar-free (or “no sugar added”) condiments
  • Flavored coffee syrups
  • Flavored water
  • Sugar-free ice cream and/or toppings
  • Diet iced tea products
  • Low-sugar or sugar-free fruit juices
  • Meal replacement shakes/snacks
  • “Nutrition” bars
  • Sports drinks (especially “sugar-free” varieties)
  • Soft candy chews
  • Yogurt (sugar-free, fat-free and some drinkable brands)
  • Vegetable juice drinks
  • Natural fiber laxative
  • Fiber oral powder supplements
  • Appetite control supplements

Dangers of Aspartame



(Photo Credit: Dr. Josh Axe/ Food is Medicine)

In 2002, anti-aspartame activist Mark Gold reviewed aspartame toxicity results and reported them to the FDA for consideration. Individual complaints included some 49 symptoms, including headaches (reported by 45 percent of people), severe depression (25 percent), grand mal seizures (15 percent) and confusion/memory loss (29 percent).

Gold also referred to dozens of studies reflecting the negative impacts of aspartame, including the many warnings in piloting material to discourage pilots from consuming it due to the seizures and vertigo it can induce. (12)

It seems that the dangers studied occur very differently in participants depending on who completes the study. For example, one review claims there to be “no unresolved questions regarding [aspartame’s] safety.” (13)

Of course, that particular report was released by NutraSweet. Let’s not just take their word for it.

Turns out, 100 percent of industry-funded research finds the same result: that aspartame is totally safe. However, 92 percent of studies funded independently discover adverse effects. (14)

The Ramazzini Institute, a longtime cancer research center, has studied aspartame at length and claimed again in 2014 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, “On the basis of the evidence of the potential carcinogenic effects of [aspartame] herein reported, a re-evaluation of the current position of international regulatory agencies must be considered an urgent matter of public health.” (15)

So, what are the most serious dangers of aspartame?

Potentially Increases Risk of Cancer

For decades, studies have proved the potential carcinogenic qualities of aspartame. The Ramazzini Institute continues to stand behind the results of its multiple studies finding aspartame to be associated with a 300 percent increase in lymphoma/leukemia incidence, even after being dismissed by the European Food Safety Authority. (16)

A Ramazzini study shows a correlation between aspartame and various cancers to the degree that the organization refers to it as a “multipotential carcinogenic agent,” even in doses well below the legal “acceptable” amounts. (17)

One reason this 20-year study is so significant is because the rats involved in the research were allowed to die naturally rather than being sacrificed earlier in the experiment. This was to investigate the last two-thirds of the animal life span, often unaccounted for, because cancer occurs in humans most often during this portion of life.

Overall, studies have discovered links between aspartame and the following cancers: (18, 19, 20)

  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Central nervous system cancers (gliomas, medulloblastomas and meningiomas)

The discovery of the central nervous system cancers seems to be associated with the behaviors of the two amino acids found in aspartame because they are consumed in such large amounts and not broken down in the same fashion as when ingested in other foods and their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. This allows their excitotoxicity to take full effect.

Cancer incidence seems to increase when animals are exposed to aspartame in the womb, underlining the importance for pregnant mothers never to consume aspartame. (21)

Formaldehyde (a metabolite of free methanol) is associated with the development of breast, stomach, intestinal, lymphoma and leukemia cancers.

Might Induce or Worsen Diabetes

Although doctors often recommend replacing sugary drinks with diet versions for diabetics, aspartame seems to have the opposite effect than hoped.

Diet soda consumption is associated with a higher risk of Type II diabetes as well as metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms indicative of heart disease (which I’ll touch on in a moment). In fact, in this study of over 6,800 individuals of varying ethnicity between 45–84 years old, the risk of diabetes was 67 percent higher for people who consumed diet soda daily versus those who did not. (22)

It seems, in many cases, that aspartame intake can also aggravate diabetes symptoms, such as diabetic retinopathy and diabetic neuropathy.

Aspartame conflicts with insulin/glucose tolerance, a marker of prediabetes, especially for those who are already obese. (23) One suggestion why is the way aspartame alters gut microbiota (healthy bacteria) — these changes can induce glucose intolerance in otherwise healthy people. (24)

An animal study in December 2016 suggests a connection between an interaction between aspartic acid found in aspartame and glucose management. This, again, is exacerbated by the way this amino acid passes the blood-brain barrier. Researchers also discovered behavioral deficits in the subjects. (25)

Could Increase Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

As I just mentioned, aspartame intake is associated with metabolic syndrome. This cluster of conditions includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat and high cholesterol/triglyceride levels, and marks a dramatic increase in the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Research from Purdue University in 2013 found that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose (Splenda®) and saccharin, was associated with weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease because of the “metabolic derangements” it seems to cause. (26)

The Northern Manhattan Study, focused on the study of stroke and pertinent risk factors, found a significant increased risk of heart events — even when controlling the study for those with various related diseases — in people who drink diet soft drinks each day. The same link was not discovered for those drinking regular soda. (27)

Like the carcinogenic risks of aspartame, the heart disease risks also seem to rise when individuals are exposed to it in the womb. People exposed prenatally to aspartame eat more sweet foods in adulthood, are obese, and more often have high blood sugar, high LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides. (28, 29)

How Did This Get in Our Food, Anyway?

The Timeline of Aspartame’s Approval by the FDA

In December 1965, chemist Jim Schlatter at G.D. Searle stumbled upon aspartame while working on the formulation of new treatments for gastric ulcers. Aspartame, developed by G.D. Searle, was refused approval in 1973 due to inadequate evidence of its safety. Over the next 12 months, the FDA decided to approve it for use in dry foods, a decision overturned in subsequent months.

This decision was immediately opposed by attorney Jim Turner (a consumer advocate who had already been working to have dangerous artificial sweeteners removed from the market) and Dr. John Olney, a scientist who discovered in 1971 that aspartame caused brain damage in infant mice.

Turner and Olney’s petition gave the FDA reason to investigate G.D. Searle, who had submitted 113 studies on aspartame as part of the approval process. The then FDA commissioner, Dr. Alexander Schmidt, assigned an FDA task force to studies regarding aspartame.

Schmidt, after reviewing the task force’s findings of many manipulations, shortcuts and outright deception, stated on Congressional Record 1985a (page S5497) that, “[Searle’s studies were] incredibly sloppy science. What we discovered was reprehensible.”

In 1977, the FDA made a formal request for the U.S. Attorney’s office to investigate G.D. Searle on criminal charges, the first time in history it had ever made such a request. The grand jury began deliberations, and the law firm representing the accused began negotiating job terms with Samuel Skinner, the U.S. attorney in charge of this particular case.

Enter Donald Rumsfeld. Searle hired Rumsfeld as CEO in March of that year (who brought a few Washington cronies along). In July, Skinner left the U.S. Attorney’s office and began working for the law firm representing Searle.

The following month, FDA investigators released the Bressler Report, finding that over half of the animals in one of the Searle studies died in the midst of research without autopsies until much later, as well as multiple other discrepancies in the Searle research.

In December, the statute of limitations ran out on the grand jury investigation due to the stall by Skinner’s resignation.

A year and a half later, a Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) was appointed by the FDA to investigate NutraSweet’s safety and potential risk. This board included three doctors and voted in 1980 to reject aspartame in additional products. The board members were still concerned about brain tumor risks.

January 1981 welcomed a sales meeting at Searle where Rumsfeld said this was the year to push for approval. Sources say he stated he would use political connections, rather than science, to make sure it happened before the end of ’81.

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president later than month and included Rumsfeld on his transition team. Rumsfeld reportedly handpicked the new FDA commissioner, Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. After appointing a five-person panel to review the PBOI concerns, Hayes added a sixth scientist after realizing the panel was prepared to vote against aspartame’s approval. The decision ended up in a 3-3 tie, broken with a “yes” vote from Hayes in July 1981 to approve its use again for dry foods.

In October 1982, Searle filed for aspartame approval in carbonated beverages (and additional liquids). The National Soft Drink Association actually requested the petition be denied because of the breakdown of compounds in storage above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Around the same time, Hayes resigned from the FDA after concerns about his acceptance of corporate gifts.

Amid the chaos, aspartame was officially approved for use in beverages, which were released beginning in fall 1983. (54) Additional safety concerns were raised in 1984, 1985 and 1986, but the FDA denied issues existed each time. NutraSweet was able to get aspartame approved for general bulk use in 1992.

Monsanto acquired G.D. Searle in 1985, earning Rumsfeld a $12 million bonus.

1995 marks the year that Thomas Wilcox, the FDA epidemiology branch chief, said the FDA would no longer accept adverse reaction reports or monitor the period research on aspartame. (55, 56)

Continuing Research

As I mentioned, industry-funded studies have, so far, discovered positive results about aspartame 100 percent of the time in their final reports (scientific skullduggery notwithstanding) while 92 percent of independently funded research finds potential dangers of aspartame. (57)

A 13-doctor panel petitioned the FDA, yet again, to re-examine the safety issues around aspartame, specifically the risk of tumors and various cancers (citing the Ramazzani study released in 2005, noted above). The request was denied. (58)

Aspartame received a bit of media attention again when the Podesta Emails were released on WikiLeaks, as Wendy Abrams, an environmental activist, forwarded information to John Podesta regarding the sketchy process by which NutraSweet was approved.

Better Alternative Sweeteners

Are all sweeteners bad? No, not all of them. There are a few I like, although one of my favorites is stevia. The rule for sweeteners is always in moderation. While these three can even provide health benefits, it’s best to limit your intake of sweets overall and tend more toward whole foods like vegetables, fruits and organic meat.

Stevia

The stevia plant has been around for a millennia and a half in parts of South America and is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram. There are several benefits to stevia; including some laboratory evidence that stevia kills lyme disease.

When using stevia, make sure to avoid dangerous Truvia (which actually contains very little stevia) and stick to pure white stevia.

Raw Honey

Raw, organic honey has been known to help counter the effects of certain allergies as well as help manage weight, promote sleep and fight oxidative stress.

Monk Fruit

This fruit-based sweetener has no calories but is between 300–400 times sweeter than sugar. There is evidence that it may help to lower risk of diabetes and cancer as well as combat infection.

Final Thoughts on Aspartame

  • Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener that has been around for a few decades and is found often in diet sodas, like Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi, as well as sugar-free and “no sugar added” food products.
  • Aspartame breaks down into two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, as well as methanol (which converts to formaldehyde and diketopiperazine). The last three of this list are known carcinogens.
  • The methanol and formaldehyde are especially dangerous to humans because of the way they metabolize in the body, coupled with the fact that we do not have the necessary enzyme to convert formaldehyde to a less dangerous substance, as most animals.
  • Many studies have been conducted on aspartame dangers and found that it is linked with a large number of health conditions ranging from headaches to cancer to diabetes.
  • The “aspartame controversy” is not so much a controversy as it is a refusal to face the truth of what aspartame is and how it affects the body.
  • Drinking or eating aspartame products is especially dangerous for mothers and young children because of the way it affects behaviors and conditions later in life.
  • There are absolutely no benefits to consuming aspartame; in fact, the weight loss benefits it’s promoted for are totally false. Aspartame (and other non-nutritive sweeteners like erythritol) is associated with weight gain and higher BMI.
  • If you are experiencing conditions that could potentially be related to aspartame, it’s probably a good idea to abstain entirely and see if any symptoms alleviate on their own. This should be done under the supervision of a doctor.
  • Instead of drinking diet soda, regular soda or sugary fruit juices, satisfy your craving for a tasty drink by drinking kombucha and healthy tea.

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