Aspartame: The Real Story

Aspartame: The Real Story

Sugar is bad for you, right? It has calories and makes you fat. Therefore, anything that tastes sweet and doesn’t have calories is preferable, because it won’t make you fat. Right? That is the thinking that supports the widespread use of artificial sweeteners. Millions of people guzzle soft drinks sweetened with aspartame, the compound sold under the trade names Nutrasweet and Equal. This ingredient is found in all kinds of diet foods, in toothpaste, and sprinkled out of small packets into coffee and tea. It is sold worldwide. It is also associated with thousands of reports of adverse effects. Most of the information that follows was taken from the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network Fact Sheet, written by Lendon Smith, MD, former Network Physician at NBC-TV and well-known author and pediatrician.

Aspartame (the technical name is L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanyl-methyl-ester) is considered to be about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is virtually calorie free. When ingested and metabolized, it breaks down into three substances:

phenylalanine (50%), one of the amino acids needed for the production of neurotransmitters essential to brain function. While this sounds OK, it is not: people with PKU (phenylketonuria) are missing the enzymes to break down this amino acid and may end up with an excess that causes brain damage. For susceptible people, phenylalanine will be neurotoxic and might cause seizures.
aspartic acid (40%), which can cause brain damage in fetuses
methanol (10%), an alcohol wich turns into formaldehyde, a known toxic substance used, among other things, as embalming fluid.

Early studies in the 1970’s found that aspartic acid causes holes in the brains of mice. (I find this an interesting bit of information, in the light of current concerns with “spongiform encephalopathy,” or mad cow disease, and Creuzfeld-Jacob disease, in all of which the brain becomes sponge-like with holes in it). Monkeys fed aspartame died or had grand mal seizures; however, these studies were not submitted to the FDA when approval for aspartame was requested. The request was approved by then FDA commissioner .Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr, in 1981, after he overruled the Public Board of Inquiry’s recommendation to ban this artificial sweetener. Two months before quitting the post, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in soft drinks, even though the National Soft Drink Association had warned the FDA that aspartame was breaking down in warm climates.

From the early ‘80’s, consumer complaints began pouring into the FDA related to aspartame use. Among the symptoms reported are the following:

hearing loss
numbness and tingling of extremities
blurred vision
eye problems
memory loss
slurred speech
mild to suicidal depression
personality changes
violent episodes
mood changes
anxiety attacks
heart arrhythmia
edema or swelling
gastrointestinal disorders
skin lesions
muscle cramps
joint pains
menstrual irregularities
chest pain
increased appetite

Artificial sweeteners can increase appetite because as the sweet taste hits the mouth, a message is passed on to the body that carbohydrates are coming in; then the pancreas swings into action and sends insulin into the bloodstream. As there are no actual carbohydrates, the insulin lowers the blood sugar and appetite increases. In this manner, artificial sweeteners can contribute to hypoglycemia.

Scientific studies show mixed results; some find no increase effects on hyperactivity with aspartame, others find that individuals with mood disorders do react with headaches or increased number and severity of depressive symptoms. “Anecdotal reports” are simply people telling what happened to them; while the scientific community does not accept these as valid, sensible human beings might at least pay attention. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

In addition to the above symptoms, aspartame use can mimic a number of autoimmune diseases. Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible, an organization dedicated to spread information about problems with aspartame, found that methanol toxicity causes metabolic acidosis and mimics multiple sclerosis (MS). She lists the following symptoms as “aspartame disease”: fibromyalgia, spasms, shooting pains, joint pains, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, and memory loss. In addition to MS, aspartame may also either mimic or trigger the following illnesses:

chronic fatigue syndrome
post-polio syndrome
lyme disease
Meuniere disease
Alzheimer disease

Fortunately, most of these symptoms are reversible, and disappear once aspartame is discontinued.

This noxious substance, so ubiquitous in our commercial food supply, should be recalled by the FDA and retested as a drug. As it is not classified as a drug, the manufacturers are not obligated to monitor its adverse effects! Senator Howard Metzenbaum had written a bill warning pregnant women, infants and children against ingesting aspartame, on the suspicion of its relationship to seizures, changes in brain chemistry, and adverse neurological and behavioral symptoms; as is to be expected, the bill got killed. What I found really interesting is that the US Air Force has formally warned all pilots to refrain from consuming aspartame-sweetened diet drinks, as they found them linked to grand mal seizures, vertigo, heart disease, and suicidal depressions. Aspartame interferes with the production of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. Isn’t it really interesting that sales of the antidepressant Prozac, which encourages the production of serotonin, have gone through the roof in the last few years?

To sweeten your food without white sugar and without artificial sweeteners, stick to the real thing: fruit both fresh and dry, juices, maple syrup, grain malts. Yes, they do have calories like normal food does, but they will not fool and confuse your body, and won’t put you at risk for autoimmune or neurological disorders.

If you really like drinking sweet fizzy drinks, here is a simple recipe:

Apple Mint Fizz
1/3 cup unfiltered apple juice
1/3 cup cold mint tea
1/3 cup seltzer water
Mix and enjoy at room temperature or over ice,
with a slice of lemon if you like. You can make all kinds
of variations on this recipe with juices, teas, and seltzer water.