Aspartame: The REAL Story? Biology 103
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Aspartame: The REAL Story?

Caroline Dyar

NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful, and Equal-Measure - all of these are brand names for aspartame, a low-calorie sugar substitute used in more than 90 countries to sweeten foods and beverages. This product seemed like a dream come true when first invented because its use can substantially lower the number of calories in food and beverage products by taking the place of sugar, which aspartame surpasses in sweetness by 200 fold. To top it all off, it does not promote tooth decay. (1) (4) Despite its desirable qualities, the use of aspartame has been controversial since its creation due to its possible negative side effects.

In 1965, James Schlatter, a chemist for G.D. Searle Company, accidentally discovered aspartame while conducting tests on an anti-ulcer drug. Although originally set to be released in 1974, it was withheld until 1981 because Dr. John W. Olney, a neuroscience researcher, and James Turner, a consumer attorney, filed objections against its release. Simultaneously, the research practices of G.D. Searle were being investigated, convincing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve of the delay. However, in 1981, after extensive testing, aspartame finally received FDA approval for distribution as a “dry” product, packaged as a tabletop sweetener and used in powdered mixes, then later was approved for use in both dry goods and carbonated beverages. It was not until 1996 that it was approved for use in all foods and beverages, which included use of aspartame in products that had not had prior authorization, such as syrups and salad dressings. (1) (4)

Created through the combination of phenylalanine and aspartic acid (two protein components), and a small amount of methanol, aspartame is comprised of proteins found naturally in any foods that contain protein, including grains and meats, as well as dairy products. (4) The methanol can be found in fruits and vegetable juices as well as naturally in the body as a by-product of metabolization. When aspartame is metabolized, the methanol it produces is identical to that produced by natural sources, except that natural sources usually provide larger amounts of it. Compared to a glass of a diet soda, a glass of tomato juice produces 6 times as much methanol. (4)

The FDA and independent groups such as the American Medical Association and American Dietetic Association have confirmed the safety of aspartame through extensive studies, except in the case of phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder which stops normal protein use. (6) (8) The web site for the International Food Information Council states that “it is physiologically impossible for aspartame to be a carcinogen.... Aspartame itself never enters the bloodstream. In addition, tests of abuse doses of aspartame in rats and mice showed no evidence of brain tumors or any kind of tumors.” (4) This last piece of information puzzles me because I have read on the packaging of Carefree sugarless gum that it has been found to cause cancer in lab animals.

Following the primary release of aspartame in 1981, the occurrence of many brain diseases suspiciously began to grow. Common malignant brain cancers increased significantly according to statistical data collected by the National Cancer Institute. In 1984, the annual incidence rates of primary brain tumor and primary brain lymphoma also increased notably, the rate of lymphoma almost tripling, which was odd for a condition that was previously considered rare. (2) An explanation for this “phenomenon” can be developed when comparing the data to the abnormal presence of brain tumors in the laboratory rats used for testing the administration of aspartame. Due to the steady growth of consumer complaints against aspartame, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated the issue in November 1984. The Division of Nutrition concluded that “although it may be that certain individuals have an unusual sensitivity to the product, these data do not provide evidence for the existence of serious, widespread, adverse health consequences attendant to the use of aspartame.” (3)

However, in 1985, due to the conversion of aspartame to formaldehyde (even while stored in the can or bottle), the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) recommended to the FDA that “aspartame NOT be approved for use by people in soda.” Aspartame is lost at higher storage temperatures (especially above 86 degrees), causing an increase in the amount of formaldehyde in the beverage. An increased presence of formaldehyde in the body has been found to cause negative side effects such as “headaches, joint pain, memory loss, numbness, tinnitus, hearing loss, vision problems, weight gain, rashes, seizures, fatigue, muscle spasms or dizziness, asthma or chest tightness.” (7)

Obviously, despite a plethora of web sites reassuring the consumer that aspartame is not a dangerous product, the safety of this artificial sweetener should still be questioned. There are just as many web pages dedicated to informing the public about the danger of aspartame and its negative effects as there are in support of it. Most likely, scientists will never agree on whether or not it is truly dangerous. Perhaps the best way to approach aspartame would be to avoid it altogether, instead of risking one’s health just to cut back on a few calories.

WWW Sources

1) Aspartame is Bad!

2) EScribe

3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

4)International Food Information Council

5)Aspartame Survivors

6)American Council on Science and Health

7)Stevia! Natural Sweetener

8)PKU Home Page

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