Few food additives have been studied with such scrutiny — or with more controversy — than that of aspartame.
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 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has turned a blind eye to one of the most dangerous food additives ever discovered.
This may be obvious, but when it comes to natural medicine and consuming only foods that nourish and heal the body, aspartame does not make the cut. In fact, 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 major study, released in July 2017, connected 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.
Researchers discovered that there were not only zero benefits from consuming “diet” foods and drinks containing these artificial sweeteners (known as “non-nutritive sweeteners,” since they offer no calories), but they 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.
Is aspartame harmful to the body? Yes, absolutely.
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.
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®. 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.
Those first two components are amino acids. Methanol is known as “wood alcohol” and 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. Methanol has no health benefits, and it’s particularly dangerous when consumed in aspartame
Phenylalanine is an amino acid that can be toxic in high doses but is 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. In at least one study, phenylalanine concentrations were higher in people with HIV, sepsis, cancer and those undergoing trauma.
Aspartic acid is a non-essential amino acid. That means your body makes it without having to ingest it. Normally, aspartic acid (aspartate) is important in the function of the nervous and neuroendocrine systems.
How Safe Is Aspartame? Does Aspartame Cause Cancer?
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. Instead they 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, however, 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. 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.
Is Aspartme Regulated?
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.
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.
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.
Aspartame is now marketed under new names in order to further mislead consumers. 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.