Does The Artificial Sweetener Aspartame Cause Health Problems?

shutterstock_171529715A quick online search of Aspartame will provide you with numerous opinions about this artificial sweetener.  Some claim it causes things like cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis, lupus, memory problems and brain tumors.  Just about every governmental organization in the world, regulating food products, have deemed it safe for human consumption.  In an attempt to provide some sanity to the controversy, let’s take an in-depth look at this sweet compound-of-death and see if we can’t make sense of the madness.

Aspartame was first developed by G.D. Searle and Co in 1965.  In 1974 it gained approval from the FDA as a food additive.  The benefit of using Aspartame over sugar, is the result of how sweet it is.  Sugar and Aspartame both produce about 4 calories per gram.  Aspartame, however, is about 180 times sweeter than sugar.  Thus, you need much less to get the same perception of sweetness.  This is the reason it’s boasted as such a great, low-calorie sweetener.

Aspartame is made of the two amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and the alcohol, methanol.  All of the health concerns regarding this sweet supplement, is a result of what those three things can do to the body.

The question then becomes, do the three parts of Aspartame cause health risks?  The quick answer is yes.  At high enough levels they do.  So why are they allowed in our food?  The answer is, we need those amino acids to perform certain functions within the body.  In fact, these two are either produced by our bodies from many other foods, or are already found naturally in our diets.

shutterstock_103673996Methanol, more commonly known as wood-alcohol, is definitely not needed by our bodies.  If you’re wondering why it’s allowed in aspartame, it’s because it’s already found in many drinks like wine, whiskey and beer.  At low levels, it seems to have no long term consequences.

Anything we take in to our bodies, in high enough doses, can be harmful.  Arguably, the most basic of human needs is water.  Even water in high doses can kill you, in what is being called water-intoxication.  An affect that leads to inadequate amounts of salt in your blood, called hyponatremia.  In the end, almost everything we take in, needs to fall within a certain range to be beneficial.  Outside of this range can be harmful.  The phrase, everything in moderation, is never so true.

Since we already have Aspartames three ingredients in many of the foods we eat, the question of Aspartames safety is more appropriately; are the levels found in Aspartame high enough to cause unwanted health effects?

To better understand where the controversy lies, let’s talk about these three ingredients and see if Aspartame haters are correct.

Aspartic acid is one of the many amino acids that help make the numerous proteins our bodies use.  It helps the liver by aiding in the removal of ammonia, and is involved in the production of anti-bodies created by the immune system.  It can be found in many different types of foods like asparagus, avocado’s, sugar beets, sausages, and molasses.   Too much aspartic acid can be seen in several different disease processes like; Lou Gehrig’s disease, Epilepsy, and certain strokes.  Unfortunately for those fighting against Aspartame, the levels seen in these conditions are several fold higher than can be achieved by eating aspartame at recommended amounts.   There has also never been a direct cause and effect shown between these diseases and increased aspartic acid intake.

Methanol, in general, does result in some unwanted reactions within the body.  Specifically, it’s taken up by the cells of the body and the production of formaldehyde and formic acid are the result.  Formaldehyde at high levels will cause proteins to form abnormally. The result is proteins that no longer function.  This is why it works so well to preserve our bodies after we die.

shutterstock_6591997Formic acid, at high levels, will cause abnormal metabolic processes within cells, causing them to cease functioning.  The result is death to that cell due to a lack of energy.  This is because it disrupts the organelle responsible for a cells metabolism, known as your mitochondria.  Some cells within the body are extremely sensitive to formic acid.  Specifically the ones in the optic nerve.  This is why blindness is associated with methanol poisoning (don’t drink anti-freeze kids).

So does aspartame produce enough methanol to harm people?  Probably not.  There are numerous other foods we eat every day that have the same, or higher, amounts of methanol than aspartame.  Beer and wine aside, foods like tomatoes and tomato juice, and citrus fruits and their associated juices.

This brings us to the last ingredient of aspartame, phenylalanine.  There is a rare disorder called Phenylketonuria affecting about 1 in 10,000 people.  This ailment leaves your body an inability to break down phenylalanine.  Left untreated, toxic levels of phenylalanine build up.  The results can be things like developmental disorders, cardiac rhythm problems, seizures and severe learning disabilities.  Fortunately, all babies born in the developed world are tested for this disorder and treatment usually involves diet control.  Diet control because there are many foods that contain higher levels of phenylalanine than aspartame.  Specifically, the many different types of proteins we take in.  Knowing this disorder exists, the FDA requires that aspartame products be labeled specifically for phenylketonuria patients.

Like any food additive evaluated by the FDA, there is a process that takes place before manufacturers are allowed to put it in our foods.  When the FDA first approved aspartame as an additive, there were numerous controversies surrounding its approval.  Those controversies revolved around the studies the FDA looked at, advocating aspartames safety.  Since its initial distribution to the masses, there have been countless new studies performed on Aspartames safety.  Numerous other reviews of the research have been conducted by several agencies, including the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

300The most recent was conducted by the EFSA and issued on December 10, 2013.  That review looked at almost all studies performed on aspartame.  In animal and human alike.  Knowing there is such a large controversy surrounding the supplement, the EFSA’s independent panel of experts issued an open public call for any data, comments, or concerns on Aspartame.  According to Alicia Mortensen, chair of the EFSA’s panel, “This opinion represents one of the most comprehensive risk assessments of aspartame ever undertaken”.

The panel concluded that aspartame does not cause cancer at the levels consumed by humans, and it doesn’t cause problems during pregnancy.  Overall, “There were no safety concerns at the current ADI (acceptable daily intake) of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.”

Even though this review should have put this issue to rest, there are researchers who still think they didn’t go far enough.

Erik Millstone, a science and food policy expert at the University of Sussex, UK, wrote an open letter to colleagues in response to the EFSA’s review.  In it, he states the panel knowingly ignored studies showing negative effects of aspartame and deemed them unreliable.   All while the studies showing no ill effects were deemed reliable.

The initial question then still remains.  Does aspartame have negative health effects? Some studies say it can and some say it can’t.  Every study I could find, however, showing negative effects, did so at levels not normally consumed by any human.  They were also all animal studies.

In response to the numerous animal studies that did show an increase in health problems at high levels, Dr. David Hattan, acting director of the Division of Health Effects Evaluation in the FDA, states; “The legitimate attempts that have been made to confirm and replicate allegations of adverse reactions from aspartame ingestion have not been successful and the USFDA continues to consider this to be among the most thoroughly tested of food additives and this information continues to confirm the safety of aspartame”.

200In the end, at levels recommended by health safety experts, aspartame does not cause unwanted health effects.  Should you want to get those unwanted health problems, according to rat studies, just consume an unrealistic amount of diet soft drinks on a daily basis for several years.

Just remember, you would get the same problems should you continually take in excessive amounts of things like beer, wines, red meats, tomatoes, and sugar beets over those same few years.  If you did however, the weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease would most likely kill you well before the cancer.

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16 thoughts on “Does The Artificial Sweetener Aspartame Cause Health Problems?

I’m sure that everything in this article is true and accurate…

…but I, nevertheless, have not had good luck with aspartame; though any negative reactions have been so minor that it’s no big deal.

Basically, aside from being a taste that I just can’t get used to (that said, in some soft drinks, like Diet Dr. Pepper, it’s tolerable), Aspartame can cause, in me, at least, very mild gastrointestinal discomfort and sometimes even diarrhea… at least if I drink more than a single serving-at-a-time of, say, diet soda, for example.

And I confess that it doesn’t always happen. I have, though, found others in comments beneath articles, or forum postings, etc., who have similar symptoms.

I’ve also found no shortage of what almost certainly has to be psychosomatic reactions to it; stuff that it just doesn’t make sense could happen in people…

…and reading this article, especially, helps one to understand the hows and whys of that.

Good article! Thanks!

Gregg L. DesElms
Napa, California USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com

Veritas nihil veretur nisi abscondi.
Veritas nimium altercando amittitur.

Can the writer please explain to me how being killed by consuming gallons of water in a short period of time with; prolonged consumption of an artificial chemical that can cause metabolic issues when consumed in grams or milligrams.
Do you really think you can use this analogy when talking about children and pregnant women? When they eat these foods that have these components naturally on top of liters of diet soda months on end if not years?
I’m not a scientist. Yes, I’m quite green around the edges when it comes to food and science. I just don’t trust corporations and gov with ingesting of man-made chemicals (Tylenol show on This American Life)

It just makes everything you say suspect when you kept using this scenario throughout the story. Just please explain how it is relevant and scientific to use water toxicity. Thanks!
Still a good read put this is spoiling it for me.

    Aspartame gives me heart arrhythmia. I get Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVCs) when I intake too much diet soda. Took me a long time to figure that one out. I used to have a diet soda every other day or so…

    Since cutting out diet soda I get PVCs maybe once a month instead of two or three times a week.

How is anyone supposed to know how much they are actually consuming in a day? We can tally up our sugar consumption because it’s on the label. Sweeteners are in almost everything we eat. I’d rather eat natural sugars simply because I can keep track of them, or god-forbid, eat something less sweet. The food industry engineers these foods, artificially sweetened or not, to a “bliss point” that will make us eat MORE. We don’t need more. We are all better off just eating fresh fruit.

In 1987 US Senator Metzenbaum of Ohio convened a Senate Committee to investigate Aspartame.
As a practicing physician I was asked to testify because several of my patients were developing debilitating headaches after consuming Aspartame.
Dr. Wortman from Harvard testified that in his research laboratory animals the seizure threshold was lowered with resulting seizures.
An Air Force pilot testified that he could no longer pilot a plane due to seizures caused by Aspartame consumption.
An Emory University Pediatrician testified that the placenta concentrated the Aspartame in the pregnant mother’s blood 200%-300% and dumped this concentrated Aspartame into the fetus resulting in potential congenital neurological abnormalities.
An FDA toxicologist testified that the animal studies to verify the safety of Aspartame were severely flawed and not valid.
Senator Metzenbaum noted that Aspartame was not approved by the medical committee on several occasions. Senator Metzenbaum then noted that Aspartame was finally approved only after a new head of the FDA was appointed. Furthermore, that FDA official responsible for the final approval of Aspartame was now working full time for Aspartame.
The negative testimonies against Aspartame began at 9A.M. and continued until the committee adjourned at 6 P.M.
After several months no action resulted.
I asked Senator Metzenbaum why nothing occurred – his answer was “Politics”.
The Aspartame political clout was too powerful.
In my practice I continued to have patients with Aspartame related symptoms – i.e. head aches, seizures, emotional conditions – all responded to cessation of the Aspartame.
Alfred Miller,M.D.

@ Dr. Miller- Thank you for your input. It is always nice to get people who were involved with actual investigations regarding the topics we write about. Thank you for the study link. I do have some problems with your statements however. The first being you stated
“An FDA toxicologist testified that the animal studies to verify the safety of Aspartame were severely flawed and not valid.”,

Why then sir would you point to an animal study to prove your point?

In the article we pointed out how controversial the FDA approval for aspartame was. Every point you made just confirmed this controversy. Since the controversy you speak of was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I would love to get your opinion on the EFSA report done just last year in 2013. This was not done by the US FDA, as you have stated you feel the FDA was biased, and it has been stated as the most in-depth look at aspartame ever conducted. With this in mind, do you also feel this report is false? If so, why?

You have stated that you continue to see patients that complain of
“ i.e. head aches, seizures, emotional conditions – all responded to cessation of the Aspartame.”

Since most of those conditions are subjective, and humans all have a confirmation bias, Do you feel these individual, subjective, reports invalidate the countless studies that say aspartame is safe?

Also, did you account for the numerous other things in the foods and drinks containing aspartame, like caffeine? If current studies are to be believed, all of those symptoms could also be explained by the cessation of using caffeine.

The FDA toxicologist, a PHD, listed the specific flaws invalidating the animal safety study.
1) The identifying tags on the animals were not securely attached. These tags often became unattached and it was impossible to determine which animal was involved.
2) The animal feed was poorly mixed. Many animals had varying intake of Aspartame – some almost none while others much more, however the actual intake was impossible to evaluate.
The FDA toxicologist informed the head of the FDA of these deficiencies in the safety study yet they were totally ignored.
The animal study in the link was a valid study and the conclusions are based on solid scientific evidence.
The patients mentioned who were sensitive to Aspartame confirmed their symptoms with pure Aspartame.
Alfred Miller,M.D.

@ Dr. Miller, thank you for your response. It is always appreciated when we can get first hand accounts of the things we write about. Thank you for clarifying the animal studies. Can you now comment on the newest studies, Namely the EFSA review of aspartame? This is currently the latest review on the topic (published in 2013). It has also been touted as the most in-depth review on the subject. Since it comes from a source other than the FDA (as you have stated you felt the FDA was biased) and still claims aspartames safety, it would appear as though all of our claims are correct. Do you agree or disagree with this reviews conclusion, if so, why?

Thanks again

In 1987, at the conclusion of the Senate Hearing on Aspartame, the president of the Aspartame company, Mr. Shapiro, distributed to the Senators, those who testified, and the press copies of an article which had just been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The article related the results of a new study performed at Duke University which attested to the safety of Aspartame and concluded no headaches were the result of Aspartame consumption.
The article was peer reviewed and presumably valid.
The study was very impressive.
Reading the fine print – the study was conducted at Duke University in a facility provide by Aspartame and the study was funded by Aspartame.
In the Spring of 1988, Letters To The Editor from Albert Einstein Medical School refuted those findings.
If you search “Pubmed” for Aspartame studies there are many.
The damaging effects of Aspartame are clearly documented – none are sponsored or paid for by Aspartame.
In my Medical Practice for decades numerous patients suffered symptomatic side effects from “pure” Aspartame.
Please don’t ask me to accept another “conclusive” study absolving Aspartame when my experiences over several decades is “conclusive” the opposite !

    @ Dr. Miller. Thank you again for your response. Whenever there are controversial subjects it is always great to get opposing opinions so that we can make informed decisions. That being said. The review we are speaking of is not a study, but rather a review of all studies ever done on aspartame. They also take testimony and comments from countless stakeholders on aspartame. Both for and against. It was done in 2013. It was done by the EFSA. We are not asking you to accept any study but rather comment on the EFSA’s conclusion. Given that their information is the most current available and not done and or performed over 20 years ago, we are interested in your take on current research, not research performed 20 years ago.

Aspartame is the same today as it was 20 years ago.
This is an exert from EFSA report:
“Following a thorough review of evidence provided both by animal and human studies, experts have ruled out a potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer. EFSA’s experts also concluded that aspartame does not harm the brain, the nervous system or affect behaviour or cognitive function in children or adults. With respect to pregnancy, the Panel noted that there was no risk to the developing fetus from exposure to phenylalanine derived from aspartame at the current ADI (with the exception of women suffering from PKU).”
These experts are wrong !!
If I review the math problem of 2×2 = 4 and as an expert conclude 2×2 = 5 …..I have come to an erroneous conclusion !!

This article still leaves me asking questions:

How / why was the compound developed? Was it a mistake or was it developed with the sole purpose as being an additive? I have read, perhaps scaremongering, that it was developed accidentily as a nerve agent and the sweetness discovered by someone accidentily licking their fingers.

How can you compare adding something like a compound such as aspartame to water? Of course water can be fatal in large doses, although there is a natural way of averting this potential everyday killer by relieving yourself. How can you remove aspartame from your body? Surely this acts in a similar way to alcohol / stimulants and it builds in the bloodstream?

I suffer from rashes and various other health effects when I consume aspartame, the reason? I have severe allergies to formaldehyde and similar preservatives- aspartame, once ingested turns to formaldehyde. Where is this information in this ‘informative’ article.

I feel this article has been written with a biast in mind. Please explore the question I have mentioned above, and read articles like this with an open mind, make your own conclusions.

    @ Jamie- We compared Aspartame to water to make a point. That point was anything can be bad for you in high doses. If you have a sensitivity to formaldehyde then of course you should stay away from aspartame. Just like people who have ciliac disease should stay away from gluten. We are not saying people do not have sensitivities to aspartame, we are saying that for the population as a whole, % wise it doesn’t cause problems in the recommended doses. You apparently didn’t read the entire article because we did mention all about formaldehyde in it. I would invite you to read the entire thing before commenting next time.
    That being said, the FDA and the EFSA can only make policies based on the risk to the population as a whole. They don’t ban gluten just because a small % of the population has problems with it. They won’t ban aspartame because a small % of the population has reactions to it. As with any food source, people can have negative reactions. You seem to have one to aspartame. So stay away from it. But all of the scientific evidence says you are in the minority. So the point of this article is for most of the population its safe. As Dr. Miller points out in other comments, there are several of his patients that also have a sensitivity. I’m sure he recommends they stay away from it. And you are correct that things build up in the body, thus the recommended levels. Hopefully this answers your questions.

Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Ie.

I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility
but I thought I’d post to let you know. The design look great though!
Hope you get the problem solved soon. Cheers

Hello Scott,

Hoping you can shed some light on a claim that is made repeatedly about the risk of Aspartame. I hear from friends and colleagues that it’s the “buildup” one must worry about. In one item above Alfred Miller suggested that there was build-up of Aspartame in the placenta from the mother.

But in almost the same breath, it’s said that you have to worry about what Aspartame is broken down into, with the most concern on the amount of Methanol. Are these two concerns not contradictory?

It appears one not need to worry about Aspartame buildup, because it doesn’t, but rather buildup of what it breaks down into. Is this a correct conclusion?

Secondly, just how much Aspartame must be consumed to be equivalent to consuming a beer + a tomatoes + an orange everyday. These items were chosen since they also create methanol when consumed.

In case you might be wondering what is the motivation behind my curiosity (besides being a research junkie), I realized the harassment i give my husband for drinking diet code instead of regular coke (my particular vice), is the same harassment I should give myself for using an artificial sweetener in my 2 cups of tea each day. So we are either both off the hook, or both on it :).

Thanks for your help

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