Found in over 6,000 food and drink products, you might know it as Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel. It’s found in everything from diet sodas, breath mints and gum, to desserts, vitamin supplements, instant coffee, yogurt and cereals.
One of the most controversial FDA approvals in history, there have been over 10,000 aspartame related complaints filed with the federal agency since it went on the market.
That equates to over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the agency.
Scary statistics aren’t they?
Scarier still, is the FDA’s own admission that less than 1% of those who experience a reaction to a product ever report it. So the true number must be closer to a shocking one million complaints!
The majority of symptoms reported have been of a neurological nature like headaches, changes in mood or anxiety, with the rest mainly relating to digestive issues.
However, a myriad of other unpleasant side effects have been linked to aspartame. Over 90 of them in fact!
And that’s not all. According to researchers, chronic illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Fibromyalgia, and lots more can all be triggered or worsened by consuming aspartame.
What Exactly is Aspartame?
Discovered by accident in 1965 while testing for an anti-ulcer drug, aspartame is now used as a sweetener in food and drink products.
With just four calories per gram, and said to be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar – meaning just a tiny amount is needed – it seems like a great, almost zero calorie alternative to sugar.
Until you look at what it’s made of…
Accounting for 50% of the components of aspartame, phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, found in our brain, that is safe in certain amounts. However, too much phenylalanine was found to interfere with normal development in the brain of infant rats.
Due to the fact that aspartame contains phenylalanine, the University of Maryland Medical Center advise women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to consult with their doctor before using it.
Those suffering from a genetic condition called PKU cannot metabolize phenylalanine, leading to a dangerous build-up in the blood and brain, and so should also avoid aspartame.
A board certified neurosurgeon and professor in Mississippi recently wrote a book detailing how substances like aspartic acid cause serious chronic neurological disorders and other severe side effects.
Given that he used almost 500 scientific references to show how damaging this stuff is, it makes for pretty convincing reading. If you want to know more check out ‘Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills’ by Dr. Russell Blaylock.
A type of alcohol, methanol is highly toxic and unfit for consumption. It’s used as an anti-freeze, solvent and fuel.
Which leads me to ask: ‘Why the heck is this in something I could eat?’
Aspartame’s Scary Side Effects
If you’re still not convinced to ditch the diet soda, then let’s take a look at some common side effects of this killer sweetener.
Headaches & Migraines
Neurological symptoms, including headaches and migraines, are the most common side effect reported after consuming aspartame.
Of course, brands who use this sweetener in their food and drink products say it’s faultless. However, several studies point the finger at aspartame as being a potential headache and migraine trigger.
A study of 32 subjects, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Neurology, concluded that some people are particularly susceptible to aspartame induced headaches and may want to limit their consumption.
It’s also important to point out that 7 subjects dropped out of the study before completion due to adverse effects…that sounds pretty worrying to me!
A second, larger study of 171 participants reported similar findings and concluded that aspartame may be a cause of headaches in some people.
In addition, the Mayo Clinic lists aspartame as a potential migraine trigger.
Depression & Anxiety
In 2014, researchers at the University of North Dakota found that just half of the FDA’s maximum acceptable daily intake level of aspartame was enough to cause serious neuro-behavioral changes in healthy adults, such as irritable mood, depression and poor cognitive performance.
How do they come up with these ‘safe limits’ anyway?
One of the most shocking things I discovered was what occurred at a 1992 study carried out to establish whether individuals with mood disorders would be particularly affected by aspartame.
The program was halted early by the Institutional Review Board because of the severity of reactions to aspartame within the group of patients with a history of depression.
Since it’s added to diet sodas and other low calorie products, aspartame is clearly meant to be an aid to weight loss.
It’s a shame that the research seems to show it does the exact opposite!
The American Diabetes Association presented a study showing a link between diet sodas drinkers and an increased waist size of up to 70% compared to non-drinkers. Those who consumed two or more diet sodas a day had a waistline of up to 500% greater than those who did not consume diet soda.
According to another study, artificial sweeteners encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence, simply because they are sweet.
So cut down on the sweet or sugary foods today and if you need help, check out 6 simple ways to do this.
Researchers in Israel found that artificial sweeteners can cause high blood sugar levels (an early sign of diabetes) by disrupting the healthy bacteria in the gut.
In a lab experiment on mice, exposure to aspartame over the creatures’ lifetime was not only found to decrease insulin sensitivity but it also seriously affected brain function.
Other studies link daily diet soda consumption with significantly greater risks of type 2 diabetes, although they can’t say for sure if the soda actually causes the diabetes.
Risk of Heart Problems & Early Death
According to the American College of Cardiology, a study last year, one of the largest of its kind, found that drinking two diet drinks a day dramatically increases your risk of an early death from heart disease.
To be precise, those diet soda lovers were 30% more likely to experience a heart attack or other dangerous cardiovascular issue, and 50% more likely to die.
Based on a sample of nearly 60,000 women, and taking place over 10 years, the results of this one are not to be taken lightly!
While the study can’t prove that the diet soda actually causes an increased risk, it’s certainly another persuasive study to add to the case against aspartame.
Is Aspartame Addiction a Real Thing?
Some claim that aspartame is an addiction. That people crave it and can’t give it up, despite the detrimental effect it’s having on their health.
I found it fascinating to read about the woman whose vision and mobility were in serious jeopardy because of what her doctor claimed was a reaction to aspartame. Yet, so strong was her dependence that she claimed she would source aspartame on the ‘black market’ if they stopped selling it.
Or the woman with symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis who hides aspartame in her kitchen because her husband was so concerned about her health.
Of course, these are just anecdotal stories, told to Dr. H. J. Roberts M.D. and author of ‘Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic’.
But what about the research that backs up these claims of addiction and dependence?
Dr. Mercola explains that when you eat something that tastes sweet but has no calories, the pleasure receptors in your brain are activated by the sweetness. When there are no calories to deactivate it, the cravings continue. And when your body still doesn’t receive the calories from this mysterious ‘sweet but calorie free’ food, it continues to crave it.
To me, this certainly sounds like the basis for an addiction.
Further evidence pointing to some sort of dependency comes from a study on animals exposed to aspartame during the prenatal period. Results showed that they had higher consumption levels of sweet foods during adulthood. They were also more prone to higher levels of blood sugar.
I’ve Read that Aspartame is Perfectly Safe…
In my research, I came across a huge amount of websites, reports and claims that aspartame is harmless. That it’s a great replacement for sugar, especially for those looking to lose weight. And these claims can be convincing at first.
But I don’t buy it.
Anything that is made up of substances that are linked to neurological disorders (aspartic acid), interferes with brain development (phenylalanine) or is just straight up listed as ‘unfit for human consumption (methanol) has no place in my body!
In 1996, Dr. Ralph Walton reviewed 165 studies on aspartame and discovered a fascinating link between study results and their source of funding.
I bet you can guess where I’m going with this…
- Of the 74 studies that had industry related funding, 100% of the results maintained aspartame’s safety.
- Of the 91 independently funded studies, 92% acknowledged at least one potential, health related side effect.
I’ll let you make up your own mind on these claims that aspartame is ‘perfectly safe’.
The Future of Artificial Sweeteners
In the last year, most likely due to increasing consumer wariness of aspartame, sales of diet Pepsi fell by 5% and diet Coke by more than 6%. While Pepsi still insist the additive is safe and they are merely reacting to consumer preferences, the additive will be dropped from all diet Pepsi sold in the USA in August of this year.
Of course, the aspartame is simply going to be replaced by another zero calorie sweetener, sucralose. Only approved by the FDA in 1998, time will tell the side effects that this sweetener brings.
Brands may also opt to move away from using artificial sweeteners as they look to flavor enhancers instead. In 2014, an additive called Sweetmyx was approved for use, with Pepsi having exclusive rights to add it to their products.
What’s interesting here (or disturbing – I can’t decide which) is that Sweetmyx is not a sweetener itself. It actually works by fooling the taste receptors on our tongue into sending a message to our brain, letting it know that what we’re tasting is actually sweeter than it is. These soft drinks will still contain some form of sweetener, but in a much smaller quantities, as Sweetmyx will magnify the perceived sweetness.
Worryingly, since Sweetmyx is considered a flavor it may well simply be listed in the ingredients under ‘artificial flavorings’.
Who really knows how this new chemical additive will affect our brains and bodies?
I certainly don’t want to be a guinea pig in such an experiment.
Overall, the best advice I can give is to play it safe. Skip all the controversial sweeteners, preservatives, and flavorings by opting for a diet of whole, unprocessed foods.
Make your own drinks from water flavored with fresh fruits and natural juices. Skip the packaged ‘low calorie’ desserts and indulge your sweet tooth with a couple of squares of antioxidant rich dark chocolate. Ditch the fake, store bought cereals and try one of my 12 Healthy Breakfast Ideas instead.
When you know exactly what goes into your food, and therefore your body, you never need to worry about how the latest questionable ingredients are affecting your physical or mental health.
So, will you be ditching sweetener-laden foods from your diet?