12 Aug 2012 22:22
Aspartame gets such bad press and is the subject of a very intensive misinformation campaign. The myths about this non-nutritive sweetener are so ingrained that I doubt I can change many minds with this post. Well, that's okay. Why should I care whether you avoid aspartame? There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But wallowing in ignorance is an invitation to being easily victimized by money-grabbing gurus.
They are very quick to tell you what is poisoning you, while they are also telling you how, for a fee, they can fix you. If there is one thing I cannot stand its cranks telling us how "they" are lying to us…while they lie to us. Do I care about aspartame and consider it a victim? Of course not. What I do care about is scare-mongers preying on our emotions and gullibility.
I'm going to cover some basic information and then give you a link to a paper, on which I will expand with more detailed information.
When Was Aspartame Invented?
Aspartame was invented in 1965 by James Schlatter, who was a chemist for G.
D. Searle and Company, now a subsidiary of Pfizer. Schlatter was not trying to make a sweetener, but was instead working on an ulcer drug. While working with aspartame, it is said he accidentally got some on his fingers and when he licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper he noticed a very sweet taste. He figured the sweet taste may have been from the aspartame, so he tasted some and voilà, a highly successful and highly maligned sweetener was born.
Aspartame was reported as a sweetener in 1969 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. It is now distributed under several names, including Nutrasweet and Equal.
When Was it Approved for Use?
It was approved for use by the FDA in 1981.
How Does Aspartame Compare with the Sweetness of Sugar?
Its about 200 times as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). However, it has a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Diet Coke is Readily Associated with Aspartame
Being one of the first to use it and the number one
selling diet soda in the world.
How is Aspartame Produced?
Aspartame is produced by combining two common amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. I'd like to stress that these amino acids are COMMON. They are found in most of the protein foods we eat. The phenylalanine in aspartame is modified by the addition of a methyl group. Its chemical name is N-(L-α-Aspartyl)-L-phenylalanine, 1-methyl ester. You may read, from one source or another, that there are other things that the makers "sneak in" and that these add to the danger of aspartame, but these accusations are difficult to confirm. When I confronted an anti-aspartame zealot about their proof of these accusations, the response I got was the typical "prove there is not anything else in it." The burden of proof is on the person making the accusation and although it is usually close to impossible to prove a negative, in this case all he has to do is send off a sample to an independent lab, out of pocket, and wait for the results. I won't hold my breath.
Can Aspartame be Absorbed Into the Bloodstream?
No. It must be broken down into its constituent components. The primary breakdown products are the two aminos it is made from, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Some free methanol is also released.
What is the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of Aspartame?
According to the FDA the ADI for aspartame is 50mgs per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh about 75kgs, that would take about 20 cans of diet soda. If you drink that much, you've got a diet soda habit, for sure.
Why is There a Warning on Diet Soda Cans About Phenylketonurics?
Diet drinks which contain aspartame must bear the following health warning: "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine."
This has led many to jump to the conclusion that phenylalanine is poisonous. Why else would they put a warning on about it on a label? Well, because it is dangerous to some people who have a very rare disease known as phenylketonuria.
Phenylketonuria, or PKU for short, is an inherited condition that affects about one in 15,000 people. It is usually diagnosed at birth by a heal prick test known as the Guthrie test. People with the condition lack the enzyme, phenylalanine hydroxylase, necessary to deal with the amino acid phenylalanine.
Normally, the phenylalanine hydroxylase enzyme acts to convert phenylalanine to tyrosine. Lacking this enzyme, those with PKU can build up high levels of phenylalanine in their blood. The elevated levels of phenylalanine can cause damage to the developing brain of a child, resulting in brain damage and mental impairment. Also, the fact that the amino is not converted to tyrosine causes a lack of tyrosine in the body. Tyrosine is needed to make melanin, which is the dark brown pigment in the body (skin, eyes). PKU babies will tend to have blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.
Packets of Nutrasweet, Sweet-n-Low, and Sugar
are ubiquitous in restaurants across the U.S.
Image by Steve Snodgrass via flickr
PKU babies are normal at birth because the mother's body handles the phenylalanine. They start developing symptoms when they are fed and phenylalanine enters their system. The results, down the road, can be devastating. IQ's of less than thirty are common and they can have a lack of interest in other people, along with other cognitive and physical problems. Seizures can occur and they often suffer from bad eczema.
Once screened and detected, which usually occurs after 5 days or so, a baby with PKU must be put on a special low phenylalanine diet, which initially is a special formula made from beef serum. Later, high protein foods must be restricted, along with certain other phenylalanine containing foods, which includes anything containing aspartame. Levels of the amino are monitored and the special diet can often be discontinued in adolescence, unless high levels are detected again or symptoms are noticed. With proper diet, those with PKU can live normal lives.4
Phenylalanine poses no danger to anyone without PKU. However, in order to develop PKU, an individual must inherit the defect from both parents. Those who only inherit the defect from one parent are PKU carriers and known as PKU heterozygotes. These individuals have an impaired ability to metabolize phenyalanine but otherwise are normal. It is not recommended that PKU heterozygotes consume a special diet. However, there has been fear that aspartame could represent a particular danger to these individuals. Studies have not shown there to be any danger from aspartame for PKU heterozygotes, either short or long term.1,5
Most high protein foods contain much much more of the amino than a diet soda or other diet drink does. There is a particular concern among parents about the supposed harm of phenylalanine from aspartame in their children's diet. Keep in mind that since children are rapidly growing, they already take in a much higher proportion of phenylalanine than adults do. For all of us, there is a significantly higher amount of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol from the rest of our diet than there is from aspartame.
Exaggerated Claims About the Harmful Effects of Aspartame
See Aspartame and the Internet, published by The Lancet in 1999. Here are some further details of the particulars, excluding the supposed dangers of phenylalanine, which we've covered:
As mentioned, aspartame breaks down into its constituent amino acids and methanol (methyl alcohol). The methanol content is approximately 10% by weight in aspartame, but it is an abundant naturally occurring compound found in the foods, including fruits, you eat, and fruit juices. Many claim that the methanol in aspartame is converted to formaldehyde which is broken down to formic acid. The danger from these trace amounts are greatly exaggerated. What these fear-mongers don't tell you is that methanol is a very common breakdown product from food and drink, usually in much larger amounts.
A can of diet soda with aspartame will yield about 20mg of methanol. Compare that to 40mg from the same volume of fruit juice. Except tomato juice gives 4 to 5 times the amount, 120mg for the same volume. Or, how about 60 to 100mg from an alcoholic beverage.
That's nothing. I know. Well, how about some other examples?
*One egg: 300mg of methanol
*One glass of milk: about 500mg of methanol
*A big old hamburger: 900mg of methanol
You'd have to drink a lot of diet soda to derive as much methanol as you do from these other things. And yet, even if you over-indulge, these chemicals are quickly broken down and excreted.
Methanol, when ingested, is quickly oxidized to formic acid. Formic acid can be toxic to the body in large amounts. This can occur if the production of formic acid exceeds the oxidation of formic acid. It has been estimated that the amount of methanol needed to produce these toxic amounts of formic acid is 200 to 500mg per kilogram of body weight. This is a huge amount. Let's say you weigh only 130 pounds. You'd have to drink 240 to 600 liters of aspartame sweetened drinks at one time. Notice I stressed the at one time part. The methanol is continually oxidized to formic acid and the formic acid is continually oxidized, in very short order. If you stagger your consumption, the danger from formic acid toxicity is removed. This is not to suggest that you should drink such ridiculous amounts of diet drinks, of course. I am only illustrating the point. The equivalent of 24 liters of aspartame flavored drink for a 130lb person has been administered to individuals and there was nowhere near enough peak methanol concentration in the blood to be toxic. What's more, there was no detectable change in blood formic acid amount.
There has been no evidence of toxic effects found from the consumption of the equivalent of 17 cans of diet soda a day, for a 70kg adult. What's more, there is no increase in plasma concentrations of methanol, formic acid, or phenylalanine.
The results in infants receiving 100mg/kg aspartame resulted in peak blood methanol concentrations similar to those in adults, which suggest a similar rate of clearance.
Longer term tolerance studies of up to 27 weeks showed no evidence of methanol toxicity as measured by changes in ophthalmologic status or changes related to methanol toxicity.
The dose of methanol from aspartame is very tiny. Hell, the seemingly huge doses from these other foods are easily handled by the body, let alone the small amount from aspartame.
Aspartame Causes Many Disease and Conditions
Aspartame has been claimed to cause many diseases and health conditions. Multiple Sclerosis, lupus, Parkinsons, diabetes mellitus, Alzheimer's Disease, brain tumors. Coma! Vertigo, dizziness.
There is nothing to any of these claims. They are, in fact, quite ludicrous. The cancer claims, which of course, came from dosing rats with ridiculous amounts of the stuff, are silly, as well. The myth about cancer is not unique to aspartame. Artificial sweeteners in general are always being claimed to cause cancer yet none have been shown to. Even the cancer danger of saccharin has been overturned and saccharin containing products no longer need to carry a warning. The American Dietetic Association and the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society all concur that there is no correlation between artificial sweeteners and cancer.
I understand, of course, that you may be under the sway of a conspiracy theorist health guru who tells you that they all lie! Oh, well.
Aspartame and Seizures
The only common concern that may have a grain of truth is the claim that aspartame causes seizures. But this is not because it causes seizures out of the blue but that it can raise the threshold for seizures in those with epilepsy.
Since aspartame is chemically related to the excitatory amino acids glutamine and aspartate, and since these aminos, in large amounts, can cause seizures and neurotoxic changes, the concern has been raised that aspartame can cause seizures in those with epilepsy. However, there has been no evidence that aspartame causes seizures or neurotoxic effects when consumed in recommended (read reasonable) amounts. Also, it has been speculated that aspartame could increase phenylalanine concentrations in the brain and therefore cause a deficiency of monoamine neurotransmitters, thus increasing seizure susceptibility. This has not been found to be true. Reports claiming that aspartame caused seizures are anecdotal and there is no evidence that aspartame actually caused any seizures.
The only study to show a potentially significant alteration in neurophysiological parameters was done on children with primary absence epilepsy (sometimes called petit mal seizures), with several hours of EEG monitoring.3 In a double-blind crossover design, 40mg aspartame was used one day and a sucrose sweetened drink the next, as a placebo control. Children were found to spend more time in a 3-HZ spike-wave EEG pattern than in the placebo control. The actual amount of time was not given. Furthermore, diet was not controlled for and the choice of sucrose as a control is not without problems, as sucrose may have a positive effect on this type of EEG abnormality, so that the placebo could have been more like an actual treatment.2
Despite the lack of credible evidence, aspartame is often included in the scare books and articles about the oh so dangerous EXCITOTOXINS, along with MSG, another big bad boogeyman.
Aspartame Paradoxically Increases Appetite
There is no credible evidence that aspartame increases energy intake, changes the distribution of macronutrient intake in the diet, or results in an increase in subjective feelings of hunger. Aspartame seems to have no different affect on hunger and satiety than sugar, except that it results in a significant decrease in caloric intake. For further reading see the sources below.
Now let's look at some of the negative studies concerning aspartame. We have "effects on patients in a vulnerable population, headaches, etc.
Aspartame Effects on Depressed Patients
This study, called "Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population" was written by Ralph G. Walton, et al. Although the study authors recruited 40 people with unipolar disorders and a similar number of people without any history of depression. They claim the study was halted after only 13 patients completed the study because of the severity of reactions within the group with a history of depression. Only 11 of those 13 reported on actually finished taking all their capsules. Even though the study was never complete and the number of participated was exceedingly low, the reported the results anyway because they thought they were significant.
In the end, they were left with data from 13 people. Eight of them were from the group with depression history and 5 were non-patient volunteers. Five of the depressed group were on anti-depressant drugs. Before the study began, they had a 3-day wash out period..no aspartame.
Then the study was done in two seven day periods, between which there was another 3-day no-aspartame period. The aspartame was given in pills and an identical looking placebo was used. The group was randomly divided to receive the equivalent of 30mg/kg aspartame a day, so to be equal to about 10-12 cans of diet soda a day for a 70kg person. The patients self-reported based on the occurrence of a number of symptoms, including headache, nervousness, dizziness, trouble remembering, etc.
Here is where it gets interesting and when we can see that even psychiatric scientists can become hysterical along with their patients. The abstract of the study makes it seem as if lots of patients were being so badly affected by the aspartame that the board had no choice but to pull the plug, in order to protect the participants from further unreasonable danger. But this was not actually the case. There were three patients who felt they were being "poisoned," presumable while on aspartame, although they had no way of knowing. One was one female participant, with a history of depression, who felt as if she was being poisoned while on aspartame and thought she should withdraw from the study.
There was an older PhD psychologist male with a history of recurrent major depression, who suffered a detached retina and had to be rushed to the hospital. Interestingly, he did not cease taking his capsules until into his second week on the PLACEBO.
Another patient who had felt "poisoned" got a conjunctival hemorrhage, apparently while on aspartame, although the language of the study is confusing.
It was these two ophthalmologic events, one of which occurred during the aspartame arm and one of which occurred during the placebo arm, which caused the plug to be pulled. To imply that a host of serious complications occurred in the aspartame arm which caused the study to be stopped, is stretching it a bit and seems to be designed to get us to ignore that fact that the study was never completed.
In all, two persons withdrew from the study. Even though they did not complete all the symptom reporting, they were still included in the study. Each having 3-day periods of symptom reporting. In the end, only 11 patients completed the entire study and reported symptoms for the entire 14 day period. Why is this important? Because even though the study authors had sought data from a number of people apparently close to 80, they willingly used data from ONLY 11. The two that withdrew early should NOT have been included. They thought that the negative results of 8 of those patients was "significant" because, you know, it's 8 out of 13 (but really 11). However, you cannot throw out most of the data and then assign significance to the small amount left just because you think it seems more than chance would allow. This is a misunderstanding of statistical analyses. We will never know if the data would have evened out more, as you would expect, if all the participants had been allowed to complete and report their results. So, what it comes down to is that someone got afraid of being sued because some people happened to have some medical emergencies and got some persons with a history of depression got a bit hysterical while taking a mysterious pill. There is just not enough data to conclude that the aspartame had any real affect. The study was never completed. Keep in mind that the authors admitted that most reports of behavioral or cognitive reactions to aspartame had been completely anecdotal and made the disingenuous leap to other studies that failed to replicate those (anecdotal) results had been criticized on methodological grounds and/or because of funding from the Nutrasweet company. In other words, discounting their own lapse in methodology. They further went on to say that they felt that the problem was that earlier studies had not used a "vulnerable population."
The two actual physical events cannot be traced to the aspartame. Besides these two events the symptom checklist relied on entirely subjective reporting of symptoms from a 'vulnerable' population. Let's look at it further, though, because it is interesting to behold.
Of the patients with depression, 63% experienced headache on placebo while 88% experienced headache on aspartame. of the non-depressed volunteers, 88% had headache on placebo and 20% on aspartame. Curious. Apparently, the fact that the authors paid so much attention to data from "vulnerable" volunteers, they ignored the data from "non-vulnerable" volunteers. Makes on wonder why they included any at all. All I can get from this is "headaches happen" and I do not doubt at all that the data would not have been so significant on the vulnerable side had all the study been completed. The chart given in the study, however, does not mention the severity (as reported) of the headaches.
But wait. The percentages make it sound oh so significant, don't they. Well, 63% of the depressed patients was a total of 5 and 88% was a total of 7. So, 5 people versus 7 people. Big whoop. On the other hand, 4 nondepressed people go headache on placebo and one on aspartame. Again, big whoop. I won't bore you with every symptom. Let's just pick another one more.
Of the patients with depression, 13% got dizzy while on placebo. That is, um, one person. 25% got dizzy on aspartame. That is two persons. Oh my, it was an epidemic of dizziness! I mean, there is no way that two people could experience dizziness by chance! I never ever get dizzy unless I ingest poison. Oh, wait, I do.
Now, of the nondepressed volunteers, 40% got dizzy on placebo. That is two persons. And 0% got dizzy on aspartame. So, of course, you can see, that aspartame has the opposite affect on non-depressed volunteers. It cures dizziness for them. Yep.
If it seems I am doing a hatchet job, well, the study is quite silly once you see the actual numbers involved. It is hard not to find it amusing. Many unrelated symptoms were reported, such as headache, dizziness, binge eating, nervousness, feeling blue or depressed, nausea or upset stomach, bad taste in mouth, uncontrollable temper outburst, fatigue, malaise, swollen lips, facial numbness, irritability, and more. Notice that some of these symptoms overlap if you evaluate them subjectively. Yet, for instance, negative thoughts, temper outburst, and irritability counted as separate symptoms. If you are irritable, you might have negative thoughts. If you are irritable and having negative thoughts, you might have an outburst. Any of these symptoms, and the number who reported them, taken alone, would be meaningless. But the authors lumped them all together and what's more, any symptoms reported as mild or above, was included, even if it was only reported on ONE DAY of the 7 day period. The fact that any one person had any one of these symptoms at any one time, means nothing. But if you choose to lump all the symptoms together as data, suddenly you have an epidemic. Again, should more data have been collected, these trends might have continued, or they may have evened out as the number of people completing the study increased.6
Now, I can't leave this study behind without a mention of the oh so famous P-value. You see, the researchers undoubtedly got all excited about their P value of 0.01. Hey, that's better than the magical 5% threshold! I don't pretend to understand all the math involved in calculating P values, or in interpreting them, but I can almost guarantee that the study authors, as well, do not understand them. Perhaps they thought this meant the null hypothesis had only a one percent chance of being true. Which is not true. There are so many problems with P-value and its interpretation but as often happens, the authors found that a "statistically significant" finding must be clinically important. However, as I mentioned earlier, the magnitude of the effect was not even considered, and just what the "effect" was is hardly outlined in the study as so many different symptoms were mish-mashed together. So, the take home points:
- Only 11 completed the study.
- The authors reported a statistically significant result, but to obtain this result, symptom complaints across a large range of unrelated categories were included and consolidated together.
- Furthermore, two patients who had withdrawn from the study for adverse events had their data re-entered into the study.
The errors are so broad and vast that there is no point in considering this study to be of any use whatsoever.
So Many Products Contain Aspartame, Isn't This a Problem?
That is a fair question. So far, I have concentrated on diet drinks, especially sodas, containing aspartame. Soda has its own negative campaign and aspartame is one of the "ingredients" of this campaign, along with high fructose corn syrup, caramel coloring, and other components. Therefore, it made sense to me to mention diet drinks, and it is fair to say that diet drinks represent by far the largest source of aspartame in the diet. As we've seen, it would be very difficult to ingest enough aspartame from diet drinks to represent any danger to our health.
Still, there are thousands of products that contain aspartame. First, let's clear up some common confusion concerning the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake). This amount is supposed to represent what you can safely take in day after day for a lifetime safely. It is not about what you can take in on a given day. In other words, just because you consume an amount larger than the ADI for aspartame (or anything else), on one day, does not mean you are going to drop dead. To put the ADI further into perspective, consider that, in terms of sweetness, 5omg/kg of aspartame is like a 60kg person consuming 1.3lbs (600 grams) of sugar (sucrose) in a day.
If your diet has a large proportion of aspartame containing "diet foods" you are still probably not in much danger, but it would be wise to reevaluate such a diet, because it is obviously not a balanced and healthy one. A large proportion of such products would also mean a small proportion of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and lean meats.
In-depth Reading on Aspartame
If you want to get down and dirty about aspartame in a book check out The Clinical Evaluation of a Food Additive: Assessment of Aspartame. You can get it used for a very low price since the many scare books from the popular press easily outsell such a comprehensive and scholarly text. Maybe you'd rather believe all the pseudoscience crap, though, as it is nice to think that if we can simply avoid some poisons we can avoid disease or other health conditions and live forever.
The Famous Nancy Markle Email
There is an email1 that has been in wide distributions since 1997 or 98 claiming that aspartame causes a wide variety of diseases and problems, such as discussed above, and I have no doubt that this is the origin of most people's beliefs about aspartame. The email. which claims to be a talk given at a 'World Environmental Conference,' even coined the term "aspartame disease."
Since, the email has been shown to be almost identical to previous messages posted to internet Usenet groups in 1995 and 96 by the author of an internet scare campaign named Betsy Martini. Martini said that someone took the messages and added a bunch of stuff to them and sent them in an email as Nancy Markle.
It is beyond me why people believe random emails written by unknown individuals and received without warning in their inbox. This person, Nancy Markle, has never been found and, undoubtedly, does not exist. It may have been Martini, or someone else, as she claims. The claims in the email are so ridiculous that any person with a modicum of rationality should laugh at, rather than believe, the claims. But rational thought is not at a premium when it comes to scare mongering claims about the collusion of our government with big business.
How many people, when told aspartame causes cancer, bother to check with any of the organizations mentioned above, or any other medical professional, for that matter? The letter claimed that aspartame causes multiple sclerosis, which scared many people, yet did any of them bother to check with any multiple sclerosis sites or organizations. For instance, if they had checked with the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, they would have quickly been reassured. Or would they? The sad truth is that many people are quicker to believe mysterious email, because of its sensational and emotive nature, than an organization like the MS Foundation. Regardless, the senior medical director of the foundation, David Squillacote, M.D. wrote this about the email:
This series of allegations by Ms. Markle are almost entirely without foundation. They are rabidly inaccurate and scandalously misinformative.
Scandalously misinformative, in the webernet age, is damn near close to Gospel. Scandalously misinformative, if it is done right, will sell more than rational thought and scientific fact any day of the week. Here is a breakdown of some of the extraordinary claims about aspartame, which, of course, require extraordinary evidence.
Extraordinary Claims Against Aspartame Which Require Extraordinary Evidence
- Aspartame contains MORE methanol than all other foods or products. Somehow, it contains more methanol than is actually put into it.
- The 'unbound' amino acids in aspartame SPIKE the blood levels of these aminos. This has not been shown in any way to be true and it makes no sense because unbound aminos (aminos not in whole proteins) are not absorbed preferentially. To spike the blood levels you need an extraordinary amount entering the bloodstream in an extraordinary time frame. Extraordinary claims!
- Aspartame was a biochemical weapon. Needs no interpretation (this one was of course, Mercola).
- Formaldehyde poisoning is bad. Yes, that is the argument. It cannot be shown that aspartame releases more than a trace amount of formaldehyde into the body that appears for a moment before it is dealt with. Basically, the argument is that formaldehyde poisoning is bad and since you can mention formaldehyde in a discussion about aspartame…aspartame is poison.
- Aspartame has had more adverse events reported against it to the FDA than any other food ever and there is a database that the FDA holds listing 10,000 adverse reactions. Nobody has ever show this database to exist or listed any reference to it at the FDA. The only reference to it I have ever seen is, you guessed it, our Ms. Betty Martini, which you can see here saying "Identical symptoms are on a list of 10,000 consumer complaints of aspartame disease compiled by the FDA. Notice that is on the FDA website, but it is not FDA material. Anybody can send stuff to the FDA in regards to a food evaluation. In other words, there are NON FDA materials that can be found on the FDA site that claim there is a list of 10,000 adverse reactions, even though there is no proof that the FDA holds such a list, except for the word of a mysterious person on the internet (and email). Where is the list?
Before you ask, YES, the FDA does maintain a public archive of such reports called Potential Signals of Serious Risks/New Safety Information Identified from the Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS). In any given year there are are say, 1.5 to 200,000 reports from consumers and doctors entered into the database (2010 was a banner year with over 600,00) covering complaints about thousands of products. The accusation here is that the FDA willfully ignored 10,000 complaints against a SINGLE product. Now, if aspartame generated these reports in the past, and it is so widely used now, it should be generating a whole lot more reports now. So, go and find some. I know it would be hard to search through all the events posted online, but the FDA does allow you to download the reports as files. They are huge, but you can download them and then search on your computer. You should, undoubtedly, find thousands of adverse events relating to aspartame.
This page created 12 Aug 2012 22:22
Last updated 25 Jan 2013 13:57