- The controversy surrounding the safety of aspartame has persisted to this day.
The name “amino-sweet” itself suggests that aspartame is a non-saccharide sweetener derived from amino acids. Specifically, it is the methyl ester of aspartic acid and the dipeptide of phenylalanine, a molecule consisting of 2 amino acids coupled by a single peptide bond.
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid and a precursor to tyrosine, a signaling molecule that stimulates the synthesis of the skin pigment melanin and certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Introduced in Europe more than 25 years ago, where it is known as E951, aspartame was approved for use in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. Not long after, researchers began to find evidence that aspartame was a possible carcinogen agent.
- The bitter-sweet story.
In July 2005, the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (ERF) published a carcinogenicity study in which the researchers concluded that aspartame causes cancer, namely lymphomas and leukemia in male and female rats. Yet, in April 2007, the FDA released a statement announcing that the agency did not find sufficient evidence to support the ERF’s conclusion. Further, the FDA maintained its position that the use of aspartame is safe.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that a 1996 report showing an increase in the occurrence of brain tumors between 1975 and 1992 correlated these statistics with the introduction of aspartame in the US.
Later, the results of a 2005 laboratory study, in which rats were fed with high doses of diet soda sweetened with aspartame, once again suggested a link with the increase in lymphomas and leukemia. However, NCI also points out problems with study design and inconsistencies in extrapolating statistical results.
For instance, the rats in the 2005 study were exposed to impossible amounts of the sweet matter, in some cases the equivalent of drinking more than 2,000 cans of soda a day. And, according to NCI, although the 1996 report was correct that the rate of brain cancers did increase during the period in question, the rise actually started 8 years before aspartame became FDA-approved and occurred most frequently in people in their 70s, who typically have a lower exposure level to this agent.
- What does this entire scientific hubbub really mean for you?
First, it means that no one really knows if aspartame – or other artificial sweeteners, for that matter – causes cancer or not. However, there is one position that can’t escape common sense: If the question of toxicity exists, why use the substance at all?
We do know for certain that some people are sensitive to aspartame. Even the FDA concedes that excess levels of free aspartic acid in the body can trigger migraines, asthma attacks, anxiety, depression and other conditions. In addition, because this amino acid impairs glucose uptake in the brain, it may cause fatigue and memory loss.
According to Joseph M. Mercola, DO, the manufacturer of aspartame was warned by scientists at Washington University’s School of Medicine in 1971 that aspartic acid produces holes in the brains of mice. In response, the manufacturer, G.D. Searle, started looking for a pharmaceutical drug to counter memory loss due to amino acid damage, albeit more than 10 years later.
Aspartame is also known to be dangerous for people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare congenital disorder in which the body cannot metabolize phenylalanine, the co-amino acid that makes up the composition of aspartame.
According to the American Cancer Society, the buildup of phenylalanine in the bloodstream blocks other important chemicals from entering the brain. In youngsters, this can lead to impaired brain development. This may also explain the persistent association of aspartame with memory loss, seizures, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in adults.
- Back to Mother Nature!
Sugar, obtained from natural sources like sugar beets and cane, is the real deal. Brown sugar in its most natural state is the best sweetener for all foods!
Honey is another all-natural sweetener although it shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 1 year because Clostridium botulinum (poisonous anaerobic bacterium) may be present, which increases the risk of infant botulism.
If diabetes is a concern, Mother Nature produces a plant called stevia, the leaf of which yields a natural sugar-like substance that is 150 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar, but does not affect insulin levels.
And most important for diabetics and dieters alike: Stevia has zero calories!
Committee On Carcinogenicity Of Chemicals In Food, Consumer Products And The Environment: Statement On A Carcinogenicity Study Of Aspartame By The European Ramazzini Foundation; Dec. 2006 http://www.advisorybodies.doh.gov.uk/pdfs/aspart.pdf
FDA Statement on European Aspartame Study: CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety April 2007 http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/FoodAdditives/ucm208580.htm
National Cancer Institute: Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners
Mercola.com: Aspartame Dangers and Side Effects http://aspartame.mercola.com/
American Cancer Society: Aspartame http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/AtHome/aspartame