So what is aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener (E951), used in many products from diet soft drinks to protein powder. It’s job is to replace a calorie dense sweetener like sugar, and provide the nice sweet taste that insulin-cycling humans are programmed to love without the calories or insulin stimulating effect. The lack of insulin stimulating effect is important because insulin is a fat storage hormone, stimulated by carbohydrate ingestion, especially so by simple carbs like sugar (sucrose). As such, we want to stimulate it as little as possible if we wish to become (or remain) lean. In this way, artificial sweeteners are a best-of-both-worlds product, allowing for the sweet taste at none of the additional calories and adverse metabolic effects of sugar.
What contains aspartame?
Aspartame is mainly used in diet soft drinks and sugar free chewing gum, but has found its way into dairy products, sweets, weight control products and desserts too. It is also sold as a tabletop sweetener under the brand names Equal, Nutrasweet and Canderel.
But isn’t anything artificial bad?
In this sense, how do we define artificial? Are we talking about naturally occurring? Aspartame is composed of two amino acids called Aspartic Acid and Phenylalanine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins (present in all living creatures), but whilst it’s components are “natural”, it’s composition is not. Aspartic Acid and Phenylalanine never occur together naturally. As such aspartame has to be made synthetically, and was first discovered in 1965 by a chemist called James, M Schlatter. In the process of developing a drug for stomach ulcers, he licked his finger to turn a page, his hand being contaminated with aspartame, and realised accidentally it was sweet. Saccharin, another artificial sweetener, was discovered in a similar way at the end of the 19th century.
What’s all the fuss about?
There has been controversy surrounding aspartame ever since it was given the green light by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974, with critics claiming it was improperly tested and industrial conflicts of interest tainted its approval. A small but vocal minority cited anecdotal evidence that aspartame consumption in the dosages permitted by the FDA caused any number of the following symptoms: multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity, blindness, spasms, shooting pains, seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, birth defects… oh and death. No wonder people started to worry! To give you an idea of the level of dispute over the ingredient, there is even a dedicated wikipedia article on “Aspartame Controversy” which is longer than the original article on the sweetener. No other artificial sweeteners have propagated such intense discussion over such a long period of time. However, subsequent scientific experimentation into the above reported side effects proved fruitless, demonstrating they were an elaborate health scare and a hoax. The FDA describes Aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved”.
Nonetheless, rumours have persisted about the lack of safety associated with aspartame. Some studies claimed to find that, in animals, aspartame intake has been associated with increased cancer risk. The “c word” being as inflammatory as it is, this unsurprisingly caused significant concern. Technically speaking, there is indeed evidence that aspartame causes cancer in mice, by way of the Ramazzini Study. Should we worry? No, this study was debunked when it was deemed scientifically flawed on multiple levels. Unsatisfied? I don’t blame you, but have a look for yourself, objectively speaking the study did have significant methodological issues.
If there’s controversy around aspartame, why not just abandon it altogether? After all, as we have seen there are loads of other sweeteners to choose from…
Indeed many manufacturers have. Noticing the paranoia, they indulged their advertising campaigns tellingly, formulating “aspartame free” products. The reason aspartame is still used is likely because it has a taste profile that is remarkably similar to sugar (artificial sweeteners being such a varied group, the have many subtly different tastes and aftertastes). For this reason it is a superb substitute for sugar in a sugar-free product going for the same overall taste as a sugar-containing product (think Coca-Cola vs. Diet Coke). This together with the fact that it has been repeatedly approved as safe for consumption in human beings, and we should have nothing to worry about, right?
But what about the toxicity claims?
First and foremost, anything we consume is toxic in sufficiently large amounts, even water! That is why we are given Acceptable Daily Intakes for everything, which are around 100 times less than the smallest amount which might cause health concerns, based on the studies.
The take-home message circulated by the relevant authorities is clear: Reviews that have looked at numerous carcinogenicity studies in animals, epidemiologic studies in humans, as well as in vitro genotoxicity studies have found no significant evidence that aspartame causes cancer in animals, damages the genome, or causes cancer in humans at doses currently used.
It is in this vain that I lose respect for online gurus like Dr. Mercola, who shamelessly and enthusiastically broadcast the largely anecdotal side-effects, and scaremongering pseudo-scientific toxicity analyses of aspartame consumption. Click his name to see the article I’m referring to.
In his in his above article Dr. Mercola deconstructs aspartame into its constituent parts for analyses. Sounds good. The problem is the misleading nature with which he does this. He blasts the uninformed reader with heavy jargon like the following: “Aspartate and glutamate act as neurotransmitters in the brain by facilitating the transmission of information from neuron to neuron.” Is this to avoid transparency? He also describes the toxicity of all the component parts of aspartame, focusing on the fact that high levels of each chemical can damage to the body in a variety of damaging ways. This is all true, as far as I can tell, but what he’s deliberately missing out in most cases is that the amounts of aspartame you need to ingest to get anywhere near this level of damage are way and above what get from the legally allowed levels in consumer products! Also, aspartame is not always the only source of some of these toxic chemicals in the diet. For example, aspartame ingestion does result in the production of methanol, formaldehyde and formate, but crucially the levels formed under the aspartame ingestion guidelines, with which manufacturers are legally obliged to comply, are so microscopically small. Also, interestingly, substances such as methanol are found in greater quantity in common food products such as citrus juices and tomatoes. White lies? I think so.
The cynic in me believes that it articles like this are written and published with no better intent than to increase hits to his website. Indeed, they’re very proud over there to be so high up in the page rankings for health blogs. Who wants to hear:
“Hey, you know that sweetener called Aspartame that’s been in Diet Coke and other stuff for 30 years?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, it’s completely harmless. Just thought you should know.”
That’s not news. That’s not going to generate hits, frenzy, or play on people’s natural tendency to believe and circulate conspiracy theories. What’s shameful is using a scientific website that lay people trust for their health information to promulgate ill-conceived reports found by numerous authorities numerous times to be scientifically unsubstantiated. I suggest Dr.Mercola look at the science, like I hope he does with many other aspects of health, before dishing out advice.
Phenylketonuric? You’d know if you were…
As it happens, aspartame is poisonous for some people. If you have the rare genetic disorder Phenylketonuria, it’s definitely an ingredient you must avoid. This is because people with this syndrome cannot metabolise phenylalanine, a breakdown product of aspartame. As a result it can quickly build up into toxic amounts in the brain, causing seizures and mental retardation amongst other serious medical issues. Equally, if a phenylketonuric woman is pregnant, and unknowingly ingesting aspartame, they could be impairing the brain development of their unborn child because of unnaturally high levels of serum phenylalanine. These are the so-called “neuro-toxic” effects of aspartame, but again crucially they only occur in a tiny subset of the population with a rare gene mutation, if they ingest a source of phenylalanine without realising, which is unlikely. Calling aspartame and neurotoxin therefore, is like calling nuts poisonous, simply because some people are allergic. Where’s the logic in that?
What we know for sure is…
Aspartame was first approved for use in the 1980’s, and found EU-wide approval in 1994. Because of the health scares and hoaxes associated with it, it was re-sent for approval, and re-approved in 2002. As if this wasn’t enough, it was re-re-approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) after another set of studies came out in 2006, a decision which stated that the Acceptable Daily Intake was adequate! Essentially, the authorities are on the case. As new studies are being done all the time, it is being evaluated once more at the end of 2012.
It is essential to point out here that the EFSA is an independent organisation, funded by the EU. They have this to say about aspartame:
“The sweetener aspartame and its breakdown products have been a matter of extensive investigation for more than 30 years including experimental animal studies, clinical research, intake and epidemiological studies and post-marketing surveillance. It has been found to be safe and authorised for human consumption for many years and in many countries following thorough safety assessments.”
In theory, they use scientific committees composed of experts in their field, and are unaffected by the lobbying power of large multinationals (mentioning no names). With this level of attention, surely we can put our minds at rest?
Summary: is it safe?
Call me naive, but despite the popular conspiracy theories surrounding aspartame and its consumption, my humble opinion is that, for better or worse, there are authorities like the EFSA whose job it is to safeguard public health. As such, the fact that aspartame has been studied so extensively and reviewed multiple times by different international authorities, and then considered safe, I think there can be no harm done in moderate doses such as the ones permitted. Indeed the doses laid out by such health organisations are 100 times below the minimum level deemed safe. Because of the controversies surrounding it it has been tested to an almost insane extent, by comparison to other low calorie sweeteners, and rarely has an ingredient stood up to such rigorous and thorough testing.
Of course it is totally possible that there was a conflict of interest in the original approval of aspartame; perhaps there weren’t enough studies assuring its safety before it was unleashed in 1974. However, and this is a big however, it has since stood up to such a vast range of testing that we should surely be satisfied based on what we have established so far. I’m not condoning abandoning all future testing, of course not, but based on the extensive testing we have now done, does it not seem fair to admit that the original cause for worry about aspartame, which ignited all the fuss in the first place, has now been effectively quelled?
With this in mind, would it not be fair to vindicate aspartame?
I tend to align my views on this subject with those of Peter Attia, in that, as much as current research indicates, artificial sweeteners are not harmful. Certainly, they’re the better option when choosing between them and sugar. The question is whether we need sweets in our diet at all. Reduced carbohydrate dieters (Paleo, Atkins etc.) and those who completely eliminate sugar from their diet quickly report losing their cravings for sweets. A balanced blood glucose is what achieves this, and carbohydrate ingestion of any kind disrupts blood glucose and insulin secretion. To save a discussion on why low carb is better for you, let’s leave this article here.
Aspartame might just be alright after all.
ADDENDUM 15th November 2012.
I feel compelled to update this article with further research for improved clarity on some of the associated risks with aspartame.
Whilst I was writing it I came across anecdotal references that the studies proving aspartame’s safety tended to be funded, at least in part, by the industry. This is obviously not helpful, as it throws a discrediting spanner in the works. I have now found an actual review for this claim, here it is.
The review, done in the late 1990’s, found that 100% of industry funded research attests to the ingredient’s safety, whilst conversely 92% of independent research found at least one potentially negative health implication with aspartames consumption. At first sight, this is shockingly convincing. Industry is pulling strings! The conspiracy theories are true!
However, I’ve since had a look through a sample of the citations, and a few salient truths emerge. The vast majority of the studies highlighting potential negative effects are linked to a huge consumption of aspartame- considerably more than what is permitted, and what is permitted is significantly more than what people regularly consume. One study, more convincing than the vast majority in the review (it was done years later), was on the long term effects of 20mg/kg body weight/day (under the 50mg safety limit imposed by authorities) showed potential links with multiple carcinogenic effects (albeit in rats). Cancer?? Consumption in levels under the safe limit?? Sh*****t!!
The thing is, even at this level, this is the equivalent of a 70kg individual drinking 2.5 litres of Diet Coke per day for a number of years… which is a high level of commitment to try to increase your chances of getting cancer. If indeed cancer risk is increased from aspartame, which has only been suggested here not proved.
My conclusion regarding the ingredient’s safety has not changed. Indeed, I fear naysayers might be artificially inflating the risks (excuse the pun), as most people just don’t consume enough aspartame to reach these levels. After all, few additives can be consumed ad libitum without side effects. Obviously, even water will kill you if you drink too much. It just seems to me that the dangers of aspartame pale in significance to many perscription drugs which may well be taken on an ongoing basis, and have considerably less research backing them up, sometimes entirely funded by particular companies. So the odd diet soft drink, maybe even a few a day is hardly likely to significantly impact your health, but I wouldn’t go consuming litres of it daily for decades, ok? That said, other than water, there isn’t a drink I would consume litres of per day for decades…
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Gary Taubes’ article in the New York Times, stop worrying about artificial sweeteners as “There’s not nearly as much reason to fear sugar substitutes as there is to fear actual sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.”
But this article is not about the dangers of sugar, that’s a whole other chestnut.
Hit me up with comments.