By Dr. Mercola
The video above features Dr. Ralph G. Walton,1 M.D. chairman of the Center for Behavioral Medicine, and a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.
Dr. Walton is one of the leading researchers on aspartame, and in this interview, he discusses his research, and his appearance on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace.
He begins talking about aspartame about 15 minutes into the video, after reviewing some of his family history.
The artificial sweetener aspartame is typically used to sweeten so-called "diet" foods and beverages in lieu of sugar (or high fructose corn syrup, HFCS) — the idea being that consuming fewer calories will result in weight loss.
However, research has completely demolished this notion, showing that artificial sweeteners actually have the converse effect; they lower appetite suppressant chemicals and encourage sugar cravings and sugar dependence, thereby raising your odds of unwanted weight gain.
Research has also shown artificial sweeteners promote insulin resistance and related health problems just like regular sugar does.
Use of the Word 'Diet' in Weight-Boosting Products Is Deceptive, False, and Misleading
False advertising is prohibited by federal law, and the term "diet" is only permitted on brands or labels when it is not false or misleading. In light of the burgeoning research demonstrating that artificially sweeteners actually raise your risk of obesity rather than combat it.
The consumer group US Right to Know (US RTK) has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo. Inc., and other companies for false advertising.2,3
In its citizen petition to the FDA,4 US RTK asks the agency to issue warning letters to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, concluding that the beverages are misbranded because the use of the term "diet" is false and misleading.
On July 1, US RTK sent another letter5 to the FDA, urging the agency to stop Coca-Cola Company from making "illegal claims that its artificially sweetened sodas prevent, mitigate or treat obesity," noting that Coca-Cola has made such claims on at least eight occasions.
For example, Coca-Cola Company recently announced6 that its number one "global commitment to fighting obesity" is to "offer low- or no-calorie beverage options in every market."
If artificially sweetened beverages promote obesity rather than fight it — which research clearly indicates it does — then Coca-Cola's commitment is anything but helpful. Nor is it supported by science.
As noted in a recent US RTK press release:7
"'Federal law and rules allow food companies to make science-based 'health claims' that link a product to reduced risk of a disease, but prohibit them from making 'disease claims,' or claims to 'diagnose, mitigate, treat, cure, or prevent a specific disease.'"
In this case, there is growing scientific evidence tying artificial sweeteners to weight gain, not weight loss.
'Coke is gulling consumers into believing that artificially sweetened soda is a treatment for obesity,' said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know.
'Coke is wrong on the facts and the FDA should stop them if they are on the wrong side of the law.'"
Many Studies Refute 'Diet' Claims of Artificial Sweeteners
Below is a sampling of studies published over the past three decades showing the beverage industry's claim that diet soda aids weight loss is absolutely false.
Preventive Medicine 19868 This study examined nearly 78,700 women aged 50-69 for one year. Artificial sweetener usage increased with relative weight, and users were significantly more likely to gain weight, compared to those who did not use artificial sweeteners — regardless of their initial weight.
According to the researchers, the results "were not explicable by differences in food consumption patterns.
The data do not support the hypothesis that long-term artificial sweetener use either helps weight loss or prevents weight gain."
Physiology and Behavior 19889 In this study, they determined that intense (no- or low-calorie) sweeteners can produce significant changes in appetite. Of the three sweeteners tested, aspartame produced the most pronounced effects. Physiology and Behavior 199010 Here, they found that aspartame had a time-dependent effect on appetite, "producing a transient decrease followed by a sustained increase in hunger ratings." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 199111 In a study of artificial sweeteners performed on college students, there was no evidence that artificial sweetener use was associated with a decrease in their overall sugar intake either. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 200312 This study, which looked at 3,111 children, found that diet soda, specifically, was associated with higher BMI. International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders 200413 This Purdue University study found that rats fed artificially sweetened liquids ate more high-calorie food than rats fed high-caloric sweetened liquids. The researchers believe the experience of drinking artificially sweetened liquids disrupted the animals' natural ability to compensate for the calories in the food. San Antonio Heart Study 200514 Data gathered from the 25-year long San Antonio Heart Study also showed that drinking diet soft drinks increased the likelihood of serious weight gain – far more so than regular soda.15 On average, for each diet soft drink the participants drank per day, they were 65 percent more likely to become overweight during the next seven to eight years, and 41 percent more likely to become obese. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 200516 In this two-year long study, which involved 166 school children, increased diet soda consumption was associated with higher BMI at the end of the trial. The Journal of Pediatrics 200617 The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study included 2,371 girls aged 9 to 19 for 10 years. Soda consumption in general, both regular and diet, was associated with increase in total daily energy intake. Journal of Biology and Medicine 201018 This study delves into the neurobiology of sugar cravings and summarizes the epidemiological and experimental evidence concerning the effect of artificial sweeteners on weight.
According to the authors: "[F]indings suggest that the calorie contained in natural sweeteners may trigger a response to keep the overall energy consumption constant... Increasing evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners do not activate the food reward pathways in the same fashion as natural sweeteners… [A]rtificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence."
Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 201019 This review offers a summary of epidemiological and experimental evidence concerning the effects of artificial sweeteners on weight, and explains those effects in light of the neurobiology of food reward. It also shows the correlation between increased usage of artificial sweeteners in food and drinks, and the corresponding rise in obesity. More than 11,650 children aged 9 to14 were included in this study. Each daily serving of diet beverage was associated with a BMI increase of 0.16 kg/m2. Appetite 201220 Here, researchers showed that saccharin and aspartame both cause greater weight gain than sugar, even when the total caloric intake remains similar. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism 201321 This report highlights the fact that diet soda drinkers suffer the same exact health problems as those who opt for regular soda, such as excessive weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.22,23 The researchers speculate that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may induce metabolic derangements. Nature 201424 This study was able to clearly show causality, revealing there's a direct cause and effect relationship between consuming artificial sweeteners and developing elevated blood sugar levels.
People who consumed high amounts of artificial sweeteners were found to have higher levels of HbA1C — a long-term measure of blood sugar — compared to non-users or occasional users of artificial sweeteners.
Seven volunteers who did not use artificial sweeteners were then recruited, and asked to consume the equivalent of 10 to12 single-dose packets of artificial sweeteners daily for one week.
Four of the seven people developed "significant disturbances in their blood glucose," according to the researchers. Some became pre-diabetic within just a few days. The reason for this dramatic shift was traced back to alterations in gut bacteria. Some bacteria were killed off, while others started proliferating.
PLoS One 201425 This study, which was done on rats, using aspartame, also found an increased risk of glucose intolerance. Animals that consume artificial sweeteners ended up with raised levels of propionate — short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) involved in sugar production. Consumption of artificial sweeteners shifted gut microbiota to produce propionate, which generated higher blood sugar levels. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 201526 Seniors aged 65 and over were followed for an average of nine years, and there was a "striking dose-response relationship" between diet soda consumption and waist circumference. This held true even when other factors such as exercise, diabetes and smoking were taken into account.
People who never drank diet soda increased their waist circumference by an average of 0.8 inches during the nine-year observation period. Occasional diet soda drinkers added an average of 1.83 inches to their waist line in that time period. Daily diet soda drinkers gained an average of nearly 3.2 inches — quadruple that of those who abstained from diet soda altogether.
Aspartame Also Linked to Autism
Your metabolism isn't the only thing that can be severely disrupted by aspartame. It can also have serious repercussions on brain function, and according to Dr. Walton and Dr. Woodrow Monte, aspartame in the food supply may be a significant contributing factor in autism. The key mechanism of harm appears to be methanol toxicity — a much-ignored problem associated with aspartame.
In a previous interview, toxicology expert Dr. Monte (author of the book While Science Sleeps: A Sweetener Kills27), explained the links between aspartame, methanol toxicity, and the formation of formaldehyde. In light of the latest research, this interview is more relevant than ever, which is why I included it again.
Last year, a two-part paper28,29 linked methanol toxicity to Alzheimer's disease. Interestingly, methanol was found to affect mice and rhesus monkeys differently, adding weight to Dr. Monte's assertions that methanol acts differently in animals and humans, and that this is why the dangers of aspartame has been able to remain hidden from science to the extent that it has. The mouse model simply doesn't reveal the full extent of what happens in your body when you ingest aspartame.
The artificial sweetener industry insists that aspartame is harmless, and that there's "no biological explanation" for the health problems people report after consuming aspartame. But as explained by Drs. Walton and Monte, there is a biological and scientific explanation for aspartame's pathway of harm, and it's related to the effects of methanol and formaldehyde, both of which are extremely toxic, especially to your brain.
In June 2015, Drs. Walton and Monte published a paper30 showing that women who consume greater amounts of dietary methanol during pregnancy have a significantly increased risk of giving birth to a child with autism. (The video above was recorded prior to the publication of the paper but their paper is now published.) On average, women who gave birth to non-autistic children consumed just under 67 milligrams (mg) of dietary methanol per week. Women who gave birth to autistic children averaged more than 142 mg per week.
Prior to the autism epidemic, the average consumption of dietary methanol was around 56 mg. Dietary methanol consumption began to rise with the advent of aseptically processed juice drinks, which allows methanol to develop from pectin over time. Today, the primary source of dietary methanol in the American diet is aspartame, and as noted in their study, the introduction of aspartame in diet soda in 1983 closely matches the rapid rise in autism cases.
"Autism has continued to rise as aspartame consumption in the diet of the United States has increased each year from its introduction," Drs Walton and Monte write. 'Obese women and those with diabetes have a significantly higher incidence of autistic pregnancy outcomes.
Both groups are much more likely to be heavy consumers of aspartame-containing foods. The very strong protection from autism (almost 50 percent) afforded to mothers supplementing with folic acid around the time of conception is a compelling link to methanol, which is detoxified via a folic acid-dependent pathway."
What You Need to Understand About Aspartame to Grasp Its Potential for Neurological Harm
As explained by Dr. Walton in the featured interview, aspartame is a methyl ester (an organic salt) of aspartic acid and phenylalanine — two amino acids; the latter of which has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group. Aspartame manufacturers claim that these are completely natural amino acids that occur in nature, but as noted by Dr. Walton, when they occur in nature, they're always part of a long protein chain.
They do not occur in isolation, as they do in aspartame, and in isolation they produce entirely different effects when consumed. In aspartame, the phenylalanine methyl bond is very weak, allowing it to easily break off and form methanol. According to Drs. Walton and Monte, when consumed, aspartame releases 11 percent of its weight as methanol in your gut.
The aspartame industry is fond of repeating that methanol is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, but here again they're comparing apples and oranges, because the methanol found in food is firmly bonded to pectin. This allows it to be safely passed through your digestive tract. The methanol formed when you ingest aspartame is NOT bonded to pectin or anything else that would help it to be safely eliminated.
Another problem relates to the fact that humans are the only mammals who are NOT equipped with a protective biological mechanism that breaks down methanol into harmless formic acid. Hence Dr. Monte's position that animal testing does not fully apply to humans, and that most of the animal testing used to "prove" aspartame's safety is rendered null and void. As explained by Dr. Monte, both animals and humans have peroxisomes in each cell that help detoxify a variety of chemicals, but there is one important exception:
- The catalase found in animal peroxisome specifically help detoxify methanol, first to harmless formic acid and then all the way to carbon dioxide
- The catalase found in human peroxisomes is mutated and cannot metabolize methanol. Both animal and human cells also contain alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which converts methanol to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen
- All of the methanol metabolized in human cells is converted directly to formaldehyde by this alcohol dehydrogenase which is located outside the peroxisome, thus dumping free formaldehyde where it can not easily be made safe. Human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid
The Links Between Aspartame, Methanol Toxicity, and Autism
Certain locations in your body, particularly in the lining of your blood vessels and in your brain, are loaded with ADH that converts methanol to formaldehyde. But since human cells lack functioning peroxisomes and therefore the ability to convert formaldehyde into harmless formic acid, it remains free to cause tremendous tissue damage.
As explained in Drs. Walton and Monte's paper, once inside the cell, formaldehyde can trigger macrophages to attack the cell. It can also readily react with RNA and DNA in such a way that they're inactivated. According to the authors, "All of this is consistent with changes found in the autistic brain," adding that:
"Formaldehyde is a much more toxic methanol metabolite than methanol's second metabolite, formic acid. This makes formaldehyde a much greater risk within every compartment of the human cells that contain ADH I. This mechanism, in fact, may be the only natural way to poison the inside of a cell, particularly a brain cell, with the highly reactive and dangerous aldehyde, an aldehyde which is so reactive as to not even be detectable in the blood minutes after massive suicidal consumption.
Because of this, the lethal dose of methanol for humans is extraordinarily low when compared to all other laboratory animals, including primates. Man's median lethal dose of methanol is guessed at being 0.3 g per kg(only 5 percent the lethal dose for monkeys) but individuals have succumbed to doses as little as 0.09 g per kg almost a hundred times less than other mammals...
Modern scientiﬁc literature does not present the true picture of the danger of methanol to the human organism. It fails us by confusing the median lethal dose to humans and by trying to link the fatal outcome to the benign weak acid of formate instead of the more likely culprit, formaldehyde. Research into the toxicity of methanol has been in the hands of a very few individuals over the last 50 years. Primary funding for this research comes from industrial sources, such as the Methanol Foundation, that have a vested interest in demonstrating methanol's safety."
Protect Your and Your Children's Health by Ditching Artificially Sweetened "Diet" Foods and Drinks
The evidence suggests artificial sweeteners have likely played a role in worsening the obesity epidemic, and may even contribute to rising autism rates. In light of such evidence, I strongly recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners altogether. Also be sure to read food labels to make sure you're not inadvertently consuming them.
If you have trouble quitting diet soda or other artificially sweetened products, I suggest trying Turbo Tapping, a version of the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) specifically geared toward combating sugar cravings. For instructions, please see the article, "Turbo Tapping: How to Get Rid of Your Soda Addiction." The video below with EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman also demonstrates how to use EFT to fight food cravings of all kinds.
Last but not least, if you experience side effects from aspartame or any other artificial sweetener, please report it to the FDA (if you live in the United States). It's easy to make a report — just go to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator page, find the phone number for your state, and make a call reporting your reaction. This is an important step that can help us get this toxic food additive off the market.