A 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.
Methanol, 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.
Formic 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).
The 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”.
In 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.