By Dr. Mercola
The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one), has released an “aspartame safety” page that is described as a “resource for professionals.”1
The only problem is that it claims aspartame is safe for use by nearly all populations, except for those born with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). In reality, research suggests this artificial sweetener may be implicated in health risks ranging from cancer to seizures and even death.2
Coca-Cola’s Misleading Aspartame Information
Aspartame is used in more than 6,000 products worldwide, including Diet Coke products, which may contain up to 190 milligrams (mg) of aspartame per 8.3 fluid ounce serving.
Coca-Cola notes that “when aspartame is digested, the body breaks it down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol” – and it is methanol that is one of the root problems with aspartame.
However, Coca-Cola (and many other food and beverage manufacturers) often misleadingly counter the claims of methanol being a harmful aspect of aspartame by pointing out that it also occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. For instance, Coca-Cola writes:
“Compared to amounts obtained from an aspartame-sweetened beverage, these components are consumed in much greater amounts from a variety of foods, including milk, meat, dried beans, fruits and vegetables... a serving of tomato juice provides about six times more methanol, compared to an equivalent serving of a beverage sweetened with aspartame.”
So why would methanol cause a problem in aspartame?
Methanol in Fruits and Veggies Differs From Methanol in Aspartame...
Aspartame is primarily made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness.
That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol. This is in sharp contrast to naturally occurring methanol found in certain fruits and vegetables, where it is firmly bonded to pectin, allowing the methanol to be safely passed through your digestive tract.
(However, the methyl alcohol can be liberated by putrefying bacteria that spoil fruits and vegetables and in fact methanol is an indication of spoilage in fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Monte recommends cutting off all spoiled parts before eating your fruits and veggies. I believe most people avoid eating spoiled produce. If not, it would be a wise move. It's the putrefaction that liberates the methyl alcohol.)
Methanol acts as a Trojan horse; it's carried into susceptible tissues in your body, like your brain and bone marrow, where the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzyme converts it into formaldehyde, which wreaks havoc with sensitive proteins and DNA.
All other animals have a protective mechanism that allows methanol to be broken down into harmless formic acid, but according to aspartame expert Dr. Woodrow Monte, there's a major biochemical problem with methanol in humans, because of the difference in how it's metabolized compared to in all other animals. This is why toxicology testing on animals is a flawed model. It doesn't fully apply to humans.
Aspartame Poses Major Biochemical Problems in Humans
Coca-Cola also misleadingly challenges the link between aspartame and headaches, stating:
“Most studies investigating a relationship between aspartame and headaches show no effect. However, results from some small studies have shown a positive connection between aspartame intake and headaches, suggesting a susceptible population subset, although there is no biological explanation. Inconsistent findings may be caused by lack of objective measurements for headache onset or duration.”
This simply isn't true. There is, in fact, an obvious biological explanation according to Dr. Monte:
"'Here is the story: there is a major biochemical problem here,' he says. 'Methyl alcohol is known now, and has been known since 1940, to be metabolized differently by humans from every other animal.'"
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 help detoxify methanol. Other chemicals in the peroxisome convert the formaldehyde to formic acid, which is harmless, but this last step occurs only in 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.
So to recap: In humans, the methyl alcohol travels through your blood vessels into sensitive areas, such as your brain, that are loaded with ADH, which converts methanol to formaldehyde. And since there's no catalase present, the formaldehyde is free to cause enormous damage in your tissues.
Symptoms from methanol poisoning are many, and include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances, and neuritis. The most well known problems from methanol poisoning are vision problems including misty vision, progressive contraction of visual fields, blurring of vision, obscuration of vision, retinal damage, and blindness. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and may cause birth defects.
Aspartame May Be More Toxic in Men than Women
In one recent study,3 the health statistics for nearly 48,000 men and over 77,000 women over the age of 20 were reviewed, in which they found that men who consumed more than one diet soda per day had an increased risk of developing multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This was the longest-ever human aspartame study, spanning 22 years. Interestingly enough, this association was not found in women. Leukemia was associated with diet soda intake in both sexes.
I first found out about this study when ABC News contacted me and requested that I provide them with a comprehensive analysis of this 40-page study within an hour. Fortunately, I have extensively reviewed this topic and was able to provide their requested review.
One hypothesis for the difference between the sexes is that men have a higher activity of the enzyme ADH (explained above), which metabolizes methanol and converts it to formaldehyde. More formaldehyde circulating in your blood would naturally have more opportunity to cause greater damage.
Although the authors' summary conclusion mentions they do not rule out the possibility of chance for this association, it's worth noting that this is because they could not offer a conclusive explanation for the difference between the sexes. I carefully reviewed this study in its entirety, and found it to be extremely well executed. While the mechanism responsible for the difference between the sexes for certain cancers need to be studied further, Dr. Monte’s research demonstrates a perfectly viable mechanism of harm, including cancer.
The long-term nature of this study is really crucial because one of the primary tricks companies use to hide the toxicity of their products is short-term tests. The longest study prior to this one was only 4.5 months, far too short to reveal any toxicity from chronic exposure. Unfortunately, because there are so many of these short-term trials, manufacturers get away with saying that aspartame is one of the most studied food additives ever made and no health concerns have ever been discovered. As Coca-Cola put it on their page:
"Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients, with more than 200 scientific studies confirming its safety."
Researchers Downplayed Aspartame’s Toxic Effects...
Unfortunately, even though Harvard University researchers originally put out a press release alerting of these potential cancer dangers, they soon caved to pressure from industry and issued a second press release that minimized the impact of the study. Even the study’s authors offered only a milquetoast conclusion:
"Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects... do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation."
One hypothesis for the difference between the sexes is that men have a higher activity of the enzyme ADH, as I mentioned earlier, which metabolizes methanol and converts it to formaldehyde. More formaldehyde circulating in your blood would naturally have more opportunity to cause greater damage. It's possible that there is some hormonally mediated protection against the adverse effects of aspartame in women, in addition to men having higher ADH activity, but the study was not designed to answer that question. All in all however, I believe the study offers significant supporting evidence of the danger that aspartame-sweetened and other "diet" drinks and foods pose.
Alcohol with Diet Soda Accelerates Intoxication
In a related study,4 researchers found that mixing alcohol with diet soda, compared to regular soda, gets you drunk faster. The study compared Smirnoff Red Label with Squirt (a lemon-lime soda) against the same vodka mixed with Diet Squirt. The diet drink increased breath-alcohol content (BAC) by 18 percent — the near-equivalent of one additional standard drink, and enough to push you over the legal limit for driving. As reported by Counsel & Heal:5
“While diet drinks save calorie intake, they actually accelerate the intoxication. The reason is that since diet drinks have less sugar in them, they get digested faster in the intestine and the alcohol in the drink gets mixed in the blood faster. So it is always a good idea to have alcohol with regular soft drinks, as alcohol with diet soft drinks accelerates the intoxication process.”
A Historical Timeline of Aspartame
Aspartame is the number one source of side-effect complaints to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with over 10,000 complaints filed and over 91 symptoms documented that are related to its consumption. With that many reports of adverse effects, it's hard to believe aspartame is still allowed on the market. Unfortunately, aspartame's approval was and still is largely a political affair. Many readers have long forgotten what the 60-Minutes' correspondent Mike Wallace stated in his 1996 report on aspartame – available to view in this 2009 article – that the approval of aspartame was "the most contested in FDA history."
And for good reason. At the time, independent studies had found it caused brain cancer in lab animals, and the studies submitted by G.D. Searle to the FDA for the approval were quickly suspected of being sloppy at best. To get an idea of of how aspartame made it through the FDA approval process despite warning signs of potential health hazards and alleged scientific fraud, take a look at the historical timeline of aspartame:
Food Industry Undermines Health Policy, Study Finds
According to a recent international analysis of the involvement by “unhealthy commodity" companies in health policy-making, researchers warn that self-regulation was failing, calling for more stringent industry regulations by outside parties.6 The analysis, which was published in the journal Lancet,7 points out that aggressive marketing of health harming foods by multinational food companies is the driving factor behind global epidemics of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Even more importantly, the researchers cited industry documents that reveal how companies are actively trying to affect health legislation and avoid regulation that might harm their bottom lines. As reported by Reuters:8
“This is done by 'building financial and institutional relations' with health professionals, non-governmental organizations and health agencies, distorting research findings, and lobbying politicians to oppose health reforms... They cited analysis of published research which found systematic bias from industry funding: articles sponsored exclusively by food and drinks companies were between four and eight times more likely to have conclusions that favored the companies than those not sponsored by them.
'Regulation, or the threat of regulation, is the only way to change these transnational corporations,' wrote the researchers, led by Rob Moodie from the University of Melbourne in Australia. Ian Gilmore, special adviser on alcohol to Britain's Royal College of Physicians said the findings were 'a final nail in the coffin' of the idea that involving the alcohol industry in public health measures could work. 'Any government serious about public health should in future divorce its public health activities from industry involvement,' Gilmore, who was not involved in study, said in a statement.”
The Most Dangerous Food Additive on the Market: Are You Being Affected?
Unfortunately, aspartame toxicity is not well known by physicians, despite its frequency. Diagnosis is also hampered by the fact that it mimics several other common health conditions. It’s quite possible that you could be having a reaction to artificial sweeteners and not even know it, or be blaming it on another cause. To determine if you're having a reaction to artificial sweeteners, take the following steps:
- Eliminate all artificial sweeteners from your diet for two weeks.
- After two weeks of being artificial sweetener-free, reintroduce your artificial sweetener of choice in a significant quantity (about three servings daily).
- Avoid other artificial sweeteners during this period.
- Do this for one to three days and notice how you feel, especially as compared to when you were consuming no artificial sweeteners.
- If you don't notice a difference in how you feel after re-introducing your primary artificial sweetener for a few days, it's a safe bet you're able to tolerate it acutely, meaning your body doesn't have an immediate, adverse response. However, this doesn't mean your health won't be damaged in the long run.
- If you've been consuming more than one type of artificial sweetener, you can repeat steps 2 through 4 with the next one on your list.
If you do experience side effects from aspartame, 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.
Are You Addicted to Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners tend to trigger enhanced activity within your brain's pleasure centers, yet at the same time provide less actual satisfaction. This separation of the taste of sweetness from caloric content means that when you consume artificial sweeteners, your brain actually craves more of it because your body receives no satisfaction on a cellular level by the sugar imposter. This can actually contribute to not only overeating and weight gain, but also an addiction to artificial sweeteners.
In order to break free, be sure you address the emotional component to your food cravings using a tool such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). More than any traditional or alternative method I have used or researched, EFT works to overcome food cravings and helps you reach dietary success. If diet soda is the culprit for you, be sure to check out Turbo Tapping, which is an extremely effective and simple tool to get rid of your soda addiction in a short amount of time.
If you still have cravings after trying EFT or Turbo Tapping, you may need to make some changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step fashion.
If you’re searching for a safer sweetener option, you could use stevia or Lo Han, both of which are safe natural sweeteners. Remember, if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or extra weight, then you have insulin sensitivity issues and would likely benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners.