Sweet, White and Deadly - Aspertame

Sweet, white, and deadly

Aspartame, the world’s most popular artificial sweetener, may leave more than a bad aftertaste.

“Aspartame accounts for more than 75 per cent of non-drug complaints received by the US Food and Drug Administration each year.”

Diet soft drinks, with their promise of low-calorie pop consumption, are the dieter’s saviour and the soft drink industry’s bonanza. But the next time you open the cooler, consider that with the temporary buzz, you’re also getting a dose of a chemical that has raised its fair share of controversy. Not caffeine&but aspartame.

Known commercially as Equal or NutraSweet, aspartame was approved in Canada in 1981 and is now found in soft drinks, desserts, baking mixes, fruit spreads, salad dressings, breakfast cereals, and chewing gum. Those ubiquitous packets on restaurant tables? Yep, aspartame. So considering it’s legal, how bad could this seemingly innocuous white powder be?

Jason Ferlow (not his real name) from Enderby, BC, didn’t think aspartame could possibly be affecting him until his fiancée commented on how irritable he’d become lately. “I’m a pretty mellow guy,” Jason recalls. “Hearing that was a shock.”

So Jason started looking for signs and eventually noticed a pattern. Every workday at lunch, he’d indulge his relatively new habit&a Diet Pepsi at the work cafeteria. “By the time afternoon rolled around, I was pretty antsy, but I chalked it up to caffeine.”

Jason now believes it wasn’t the caffeine, because on weekends he didn’t have the same problem. Sure, he usually drank a cup of coffee, even two, but he didn’t get the same nervous, snappy feeling as he did after a can of soda.

“Aspartame. Definitely,” he states. “I’ve cut out the diet pop totally, and I feel way more level. My fiancée agrees.”

The not-so-sweet verdict

Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refute claims that, among other things, aspartame is linked to lupus, mimics multiple sclerosis, is dangerous to diabetics, and causes cancer or allergic reactions.

But some scientists have expressed concerns over aspartame. Even Health Canada notes on their Web site that aspartame can be hazardous to the one in 20,000 people born with phenylketonuria, which is the inability to metabolize phenylalaine (aspartame’s main component). High blood levels of phenylalaine can interfere with mental function, which is why all foods containing aspartame must be labelled.

In Hard to Swallow: The Truth About Food Additives (alive Books, 1999), Doris Sarjeant and Karen Evans point out that although aspartic acid and phenylalanine are found in milk and other protein sources, it’s different when they’re added to a product in high concentrations and then flooded into the bloodstream. “These two amino acids, now out of their natural environment, begin to break down into toxic products,” they write.

Further, when aspartame breaks down in the body, it releases methanol, a gas that negatively affects optic nerve function and interferes with blood supply to the retina, resulting in vision loss.

Given these concerns, is it any surprise that tens of thousands of complaints have been lodged, including reports of headaches, dizziness, epileptic-like seizures, insomnia, vertigo, rashes, and anxiety? According to Lynne Melcombe in Health Hazards of White Sugar (alive Books, 2000), aspartame accounts for more than 75 per cent of non-drug complaints received by the FDA each year.

Danger for dinner

NutraSweet brand aspartame is sold in more than 100 countries and used in more than 5,000 food products by 250 million people, says Brand Week magazine. The Food Directorate of Health Canada’s acceptable daily intake for aspartame is 40 milligrams/kilogram of body weight, which is the equivalent of a 130-pound (60-kg) person drinking 16 regular-size cans of diet pop daily.

Other artificial sweeteners are approved in Canada include: acesulfame-potassium, sucralose (Splenda), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, nannitol, sorbitol, thaumatin, and xylitol. Acesulfame-potassium, commonly used in conjunction with aspartame and sucralose, has caught the attention of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest as a potential carcinogen. Sucralose has caused shrunken thymus glands in animal studies, along with enlarged organs, lowered red blood cell count, genetic damage, and birth defects.

Saccharin and cyclamate are still sold as tabletop sweeteners in Canada; saccharin is a known carcinogen, while cyclamate has been linked to genetic damage and cancer since the late 1960s. In 1970, it was totally banned by the FDA.

As Melcombe writes, “Not one artificial sweetener has been proven conclusively to be safe.” The best way to reduce intake of aspartame is to simply read labels carefully. Products containing artificial sweeteners are usually processed, packaged, and laden with colorants and preservatives, the kinds of foods we’d probably want to avoid anyway.

Diet pop is the biggest aspartame offender. Opt for naturally flavoured sodas&a good selection is usually available at whole food markets. When baking or cooking, use natural sweeteners whenever possible. In the end, it’s ironic that artificial sweeteners may be an even bigger danger than the sugars they’re supposed to replace.

Aspartame’s history

The artificial sweetener was discovered in 1965 and approved in 1974. In 1975, an FDA task force uncovered evidence that aspartame’s maker, the G.D. Searle company (now a division of Monsanto), had falsified data. Negative results suggesting a connection between aspartame and brain tumours in monkeys had been whitewashed. A grand jury found additional evidence of study tampering and, in 1980, aspartame was not reapproved, a short-lived effort, as it turns out. The next year, under a new administration, the additive was back on the market. By 1983, aspertame was in soft drinks and the controversy was slowly fading from people’s minds.

In 1996, the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington joined the US Center for Science in the Public Interest in petitioning the US government to perform more tests on aspartame after a study in the Journal of Neuropathy and Experimental Neurology suggested a connection to brain tumours. Dr. John Olney of Washington University in St. Louis pointed to animal studies showing a high incidence of brain tumours in rats fed aspartame over a two-year period. The FDA and the National Cancer Institute have refuted the association.

Also in 1996, Ralph G. Walton, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, revealed his analysis of 164 aspartame studies with human significance. Seventy-four of the studies had industry sponsorship ties while ninety were independently funded. Of the 74 industry-linked studies, all reported no problems with aspartame. Of the 90 independent studies, 83 (92 per cent) revealed one or more problems.

In May 2000, J.W. Childs Equity Partners bought the NutraSweet brand from Monsanto for $440 million. Included in the deal were the rights to the company’s newest chemical sweetener, neotame, approved for food use by the FDA in July 2002. Critics are watching neotame because it possesses the same questionable components as aspartame.

Safer sweeteners’ guide

Sweetener Characteristics

Honey Twice as sweet as refined sugar, 35 per cent protein, and contains half of all amino acids, as well as vitamins B-complex, C, D, and E; purchase unfiltered, unheated, and unprocessed honey.

Maple syrup Derived from tree sap; Grade A has mildest flavour, Grade B has medium flavour with more minerals, Grade C has most flavour and minerals; look for labels that say ‘100% pure organic maple syrup’.

Sucanat or rapadura Derived from tropical sugarcane; processed to retain a higher content of nutritious mineral salts, vitamins, and trace elements.

Molasses Byproduct of cane-sugar refining that, interestingly, releases serotonin in the brain to inspire that “feel good” feeling; contains many minerals; look for organic brands to avoid herbicide residues.

Stevia Derived from a plant up to 300 times sweeter than sugar; calorie-free; used extensively in Japan with no adverse side-effects; available as a powder or liquid.

Grain malt syrups Made from barley or rice; one-third to one-half as sweet as refined sugar; retain half the nutrients of the whole grains from which they’re made.

Fresh and dried fruit Nature’s sweeteners possess fibre and nutrients and can add flavour to baked and cooked dishes; try apricots, currants, dates, figs, prunes, and raisins.

Date sugar An alternative to brown sugar (usually just white sugar mixed with molasses) that retains its fibre- and mineral-content due to unique processing; safe for diabetics; may need to special order through a health food store.
——————————————————————————————————————Michelle Hancock is a professional writer and editor who believes strongly in the power of complementary medicine and freedom of choice in health care. E-mail: michellehancock@shaw.ca. Source: Health Hazards of White Sugar by Lynne Melcombe, Natural Health Guide #22, (alive Books, 2000).

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