By Dr. Mercola
While the sale of soda, and notably diet soda, has continued to plummet over the past 30 years,1 artificial sweeteners are also found in over 6,000 different processed food products.2 It appears sales of soda products have reached an all-time low in response to consumers’ demand for healthier alternatives.
Sales figures demonstrate bottled water is poised to overtake soda as the largest beverage category.3 The switch from soda, packed with more chemicals than just aspartame, to bottled water as a drink of choice, is heartening.
However, it’s important to remember that other products on your grocery store shelves also contain zero- or low-calorie high-intensity sweeteners to tempt your palate.
According to the Drug Information and Side Effects Database, aspartame can be found in a variety of different products from chewing gum and frozen desserts to condiments, ice tea and vegetable drinks.4 A wide range of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs also contain aspartame.5
So, as you are reducing the number of carbonated drinks for you and your family, also remember to read the labels on your chewing gum, yogurts, cold and frozen desserts, children’s vitamins and other pharmaceutical products for aspartame or brand names like NutraSweet or Equal.
Why Manufacturers Turned to Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar has become an inseparable part of the manufacture of processed foods. Manufacturers spend hours on research and development to find just the right combination of sugar, fat and salt in their products to increase the taste value and potential addiction to their foods. This is called the bliss point.6
Following research that identified the role sugar plays in neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic dysfunction and increasing challenges with weight management, manufacturers turned to sugar substitutes to reduce calories and meet public demand.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese and slightly more than 70 percent are either overweight or obese.7
Obesity is related to some of the leading causes of preventable death in America including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.8 The rising epidemic of obesity fueled an increasing use of artificial sweeteners.
Even after years of research demonstrating poor health outcomes, the use of aspartame continues to gather supporters who rely on industry-funded research. The Calorie Control Council uses a well-funded platform to persuade you to use aspartame for weight loss and weight management.9
As I’ve discussed in a previous article, the Calorie Control Council is an association that represents manufacturers and suppliers of low-calorie, sugar-free and reduced sugar foods and beverages, and has strong ties to the Kellen Company, which is instrumental in creating and managing industry front groups specifically created to mislead you about the product in question, protect industry profits and influence regulatory agencies.
This makes virtually any position of the Calorie Control Council questionable at best when it comes to public safety.
California Taking Action Against Aspartame
Proposition 65 became law in California in 1986,10 requiring manufacturers to add labeled warnings on products “known by the state of California to cause cancer.”11
Originally approved for use in 1981 under specific conditions, the scope of use widened in 1983 and by 1996 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved aspartame as a “general purpose sweetener.”
California’s Carcinogenic Identification Committee (CIC), charged with advising the state Office of Environment Health Hazard Assessment with identification of hazardous materials to be covered under Proposition 65, is now reviewing aspartame.
Despite the FDA’s denial of two Citizen Petitions to ban aspartame,12,13 CIC is reviewing the safety of aspartame at its upcoming November meeting.14 Most of the research allegedly demonstrating safety of the chemical is industry-funded, while those demonstrating side effects are from independent sources.
Research not linked to the manufacturer or to regulatory agencies will provide the backbone of information presented to support the listing of aspartame as a substance known to cause cancer, which means there’s at least a chance CIC may require a warning.
Animal Studies May Not Accurately Represent Human Reaction to Aspartame
The major chemical components of aspartame are methanol, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. While the latter two components are amino acids your body uses to function optimally, the amount consumed in the number of aspartame-containing foods you eat each day may be excessive.
On the other hand, methanol, or wood alcohol,15 is not a substance your body needs or uses. Methanol found in whole foods is bound firmly to pectin and is excreted from your body without affecting your cells.
The methanol in aspartame, on the other hand, is bound weakly to the phenylalanine and breaks easily during digestion. Once released, your body converts the methanol to formaldehyde, one of the ingredients in embalming fluid, a known carcinogen16 and deadly neurotoxin.17
Both animals and humans have small structures called peroxisomes in each cell. There are a couple of hundred in every cell of your body, which are designed to detoxify a variety of chemicals.
Peroxisome contains catalase, which helps detoxify methanol once it is turned into formaldehyde. Other chemicals in the peroxisome then convert the formaldehyde to formic acid, which is harmless, but this last step occurs ONLY in non-human animals.
When methanol enters the peroxisome of every animal except humans, it gets into that mechanism. Humans do have the same number of peroxisomes in comparable cells as animals, but human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid.
Researchers have found that mice, dogs and other research animals efficiently breakdown methanol or formaldehyde without the neurotoxic effects it has on humans.18
Thus animal studies cannot physiologically give an accurate representation of what happens in your body as you ingest methanol laced aspartame.
Industry Interests Impact Research Results
In an interesting meta-analysis of 31 studies performed between 1978 and 2014, researchers from Sydney University in Australia found those studies funded by the artificial sweetener industry were 17 times more likely to find a favorable result than those funded by independent sources.19,20
This is not surprising. Similar findings have been found in other industries, most recently the role sugar lobbyists played influencing research on heart disease.21 The review, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found scientists were paid to overlook the role sugar plays in heart disease.22
These results were released in the same week that lead author and pharmacologist Lisa Bero, Ph.D., published her finding that financial interests biased artificial sweetener research. Bero claimed the apparent bias was not prevented by a peer review process.23 In her analysis of the results, she concluded:24
“Review sponsorship and authors’ financial conflicts of interest introduced bias affecting the outcomes of reviews of artificially sweetened beverage effects on weight that could not be explained by other sources of bias.”
Putting this into a different perspective, her meta-analysis found:25
"[One-hundred] percent of the industry-sponsored studies concluded that aspartame was safe and 92 percent of the independently funded studies identified adverse effects of aspartame consumption."
Quoted in The Age, Bero went on to say:26
"It is not industry research, per se, that is the problem. It is the type of funding. What is needed are safeguards and also having industry contributing to a common pot to fund food safety research."
Aspartame and Cancer
Taking into account the fact that animal studies may not reveal the entire carcinogenic picture, it is interesting to note that even while animals have the ability to efficiently excrete methanol and thus are not exposed to formaldehyde in cumulative amounts as humans are, research shows that even in low doses, animals are getting cancer.
A study led by Dr. Morando Soffritti, a cancer researcher from Italy, found that even in doses much lower than accepted in the U.S. and Europe, animals were developing several different forms of cancer when fed aspartame.27 Sofritti is the head of the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences, a well-respected, independent and non-profit institution that has been dedicated to cancer prevention for more than 35 years.
In his study, researchers exposed rats to aspartame from before birth until their natural death. Most other studies sacrifice animals at 110 weeks, earlier than Soffritti and his team believe long-term effects of the aspartame may be triggered.28
Lifetime exposure to the chemical during research more closely represents the results you may experience. The same study demonstrated that when first exposed before birth, the risk of developing cancer was significantly higher.29 The researchers determined aspartame's carcinogenic effect was observed at levels as low as 400 parts per million (ppm), concluding the following:
"The results of this mega-experiment indicate that APM [aspartame] is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, even at a daily dose of 20 mg/kg body weight, much less than the current acceptable daily intake. On the basis of these results, a reevaluation of the present guidelines on the use and consumption of APM is urgent and cannot be delayed."
Another link was made in the Nurse’s Health Study, which spanned 22 years and nearly 120,000 people.30,31 Before references to aspartame were deleted from the study, data demonstrated one can of soda a day raised the risk of leukemia by 42 percent, multiple myeloma in men by 102 percent and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in men by 31 percent.32
High-intensity artificial sweeteners also increase your risk for obesity, another factor in the development of several cancers.33 The study drew such intense criticism, Harvard quickly retracted the study, saying the science was “weak.”34,35
Another potential cause for concern is the fact that Monsanto, which manufactured and sold aspartame between 1985 and 2000,36 used genetically altered E. coli to produce an aspartic acid-phenylalanine segment of the aspartame. A patent application was made in 1981,37 and although reported as early as 1999, it never received much attention.38 While still manufacturing the product, Monsanto insisted it was safe and that no modified DNA was in the finished product.39
This Is Your Brain on Aspartame
If the prospect of cancer is not enough to deter you from drinking diet soda or consuming processed foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners, consider the effect that aspartame has on your neurons and your cognitive function. In a study published in Redox Biology, researchers found aspartame may essentially program your brain cells to die.40
These biochemical and mitochondrial changes alter the functional activity in your brain, resulting in altered neuron function and neurodegeneration. The researchers theorized the results were from the effects of methanol molecule or the metabolite, formaldehyde or formate. This study also demonstrated that long-term use of FDA approved levels of aspartame distort your brain function.41
Another compound found in aspartame, phenylalanine, is delivered in excessive amounts and depletes your brain of serotonin, possibly one of the factors responsible for the increased number of people suffering from depression who regularly eat foods sweetened with aspartame.
A study planned by Case Western researchers was designed to evaluate the effects of aspartame on the mental health of their participants.42
However, this study was halted early by the Institutional Review Board citing safety reasons and severity of reaction to individuals who suffered from depression when exposed to aspartame. Reports of neurological and behavioral disturbances after ingestion of aspartame include an increase in headaches, migraine headaches,43,44,45,46 insomnia and seizures.47
Another study demonstrated that a high-aspartame diet resulted in more headaches, irritable mood, depression and poor performance on spatial orientation tests.48 A large concern is that the “high-aspartame diet” consisted of half the amount of aspartame the FDA considers safe for daily ingestion.
Despite the Evidence, FDA Considers Aspartame Safe
Although the FDA considers aspartame safe for consumption, other research not influenced by the industry has reached a different conclusion. This short video demonstrates the links between the chemical components of aspartame and the negative health conditions you may have experienced.
The list of aspartame side effects is long and involved. Dr. H.J. Roberts, a board-certified internist and author of the book, “Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic,” coined the phrase “aspartame disease” to describe the negative health conditions associated with it. These include changes in mood, seizures, memory loss, fibromyalgia-type symptoms and fatigue.49
The FDA received 3,000 reported adverse reactions by June 1987.50 However, this number may be a gross underestimate, as many people do not associate their symptoms with the consumption of products containing aspartame, or they may notice their symptoms resolve after they stop using the product but don’t report it to the FDA.
The approval of aspartame was one of the most contested in FDA history, having been denied four times for safety reasons, only to be approved after political maneuvers were made to put an FDA director in place who looked favorably upon the approval. You can read more about the political and financial pressure needed to gain approval in my previous article titled, “Documentary: Sweet Misery.”
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) without delay. 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.