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What Are The Risks of Consuming Aspartame?

Written by S.O.

Posted on June 1, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Bring up the topic of aspartame among a group of friends, and you’re bound to hear many different opinions…

Some might point to the recent study by the UK’s Food Standards Agency that found no response changes in test subjects “after consuming a cereal bar, whether it contained aspartame or not.”

Photo by Senado Federal

Others will point out that maybe it’s not so simple – that certain individuals are more prone to the deleterious effects of aspartame than others.

Then, of course, someone will claim aspartame is bad for everyone, pointing to the way the chemical was hoisted on the American public without enough scrutiny or study.

The point is, the facts about aspartame are not widely known or understood. Let’s take a look at aspartame, it’s history, makeup, and the known effects of the substance so that we all might be better informed.

What Is Aspartame?

Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965, when researchers at G.D. Searle and Company working to develop an ulcer drug discovered its overwhelming sweetness. Early studies on the substance were not promising, as it seemed to induce grand mal seizures and even death in clinical trials using monkeys.

The substance, made up of three chemicals – aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol, was cleared under a cloud of suspicion by the Food and Drug Administration in 1981. Many believed that the G.D. Searle and Company was merely biding waiting for more favorable FDA commissioner to be appointed, which they say happened under the newly sworn-in president, Ronald Reagan. by 1983, aspartame could be found in soft drinks, baked goods, and other confections.

Aspartame has become the non-sugar sweetener of choice among a whole host of products and food producers, primarily because it is some 200-times sweeter than sugar. As mentioned above, phenylalanine and aspartic acid are two primary chemicals in the substance, which, when combined and modified, “carry” a methyl group (methanol), helping to provide the high amount of sweetness.

Photo by Luis Romero

Though fruits and vegetables similarly produce methanol, the methyl group produced by aspartame differs in that it is not firmly bonded to pectin, which, in fruits, appears to allow it to pass through our digestive tract. The methanol produced by aspartame lacks this bond with pectin, leading many to wonder how exactly it is expelled from our bodies.

Another factor that may make people uncomfortable with the use of aspartame is that it is made from the “faces” (read: waste product) of genetically modified E. coli bacteria.

Aspartame and The Body

When aspartame enters the human body, the roughly 40 percent of the substance made up of aspartic acid (an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier) seems to enter brain cells, which are then bombarded with an excess of calcium. This can result in neural cell damage, which has been known to cause death in some individuals. In some cases, aspartame has been linked to several neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, MS, epilepsy, and dementia.

Aspartame has also been linked to certain endocrine disorders, sometimes leading to over stimulation of the brain and so-called “excitotoxin” exposure. Because phenylalanine is a neurotoxin at high doses, many have concluded that these neurological events are associated with use of aspartame. Though there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence for the claim, it should be said that no major scientific study supports that position.

The brain, however, isn’t the only area of concern when it comes to aspartame.

A recent study concluded the just two drinks containing aspartame per day increased one’s risk of early death due to heart disease. Presented to the American College of Cardiology’s annual Scientific Session, the study found that consuming two-or-more diet drinks per day increased a person’s chances of suffering a “cardiovascular event” by 30 percent, while increasing chances of death from those “events” by 50 percent.

Photo by Yeah Im Kenny

Animal studies at Purdue University supported the position that diet drinks containing aspartame promoted a variety of heart problems. One theory holds that consuming aspartame causes the body to produce less heart-protecting proteins, and that over time, cardiovascular health is compromised.

Another widely circulated study, which focused on aspartame toxicity, found a clear association between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and leukemia.

Some studies have found the aspartame decreases insulin sensitivity. The American Diabetes Association has concluded that artificial sweeteners like aspartame impact the body’s ability to respond to sugar. The aforementioned Purdue University animal study demonstrated that repeated exposure to substances like aspartame could interrupt and change the way mammals respond to subsequent sugar exposures.

Several studies have found a link between depressed people and their consumption of aspartame. While no link has been found with aspartame causing depression, it seems to have a damaging effect on those already diagnosed. One study was even stopped prematurely because the effects appeared to be so severe.

It looks like people differ in their sensitivity to aspartame, and that as many as 30 percent of people may be considered aspartame sensitive. It should be noted that aspartame is the top food item about which the FDA receives complaints. Of those complaints, seizures seem to be most common.

Does It Help You Lose Weight?

One would think that, considering all of the negative research and publicity aspartame receives, those who use it could at least count on it to help them lose weight by decreasing calorie consumption.

Yet, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Photo by Steve Snodgras

Despite common assumptions, artificial sweeteners like aspartame don’t promote weight loss. Even though it contains no sugar, studies confirm that your body isn’t confused – when you eat something sweet, the brain releases dopamine and leptin, and it’s the process is the same when consuming artificial sweeteners. The difference, however, is that this dopamine and leptin release is held in check when the body receives the accompanying calories of the sugary things we eat. When this process is started by the consumption of an artificial sweetener, but no sugary calories are ingested, the brain struggles to know when to turn off the process. This results in a kind of “false-positive” in the brain, failing to regulate dopamine and leptin release, and subsequently leading to overeating.

It seems to be the same with many processed diet foods, that instead of fooling the body, the body responds based on how many calories it expects to get – based on the taste of the food. When the body thinks it’s eating something sweet, but isn’t getting the associated calories, feelings of hunger and binge eating are common consequences.

While there is open disagreement about how aspartame negatively affects the human body, it is clear that, if weight loss is the goal, there are much more effective methods than aspartame consumption.

Perhaps the dangers of aspartame have sometimes been overstated. Yet, when it doesn’t even achieve its intended purpose – that is, replacing other sweeteners to help people consume fewer calories (and thereby lose weight), it’s a wonder that we are ingesting it at all.


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