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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Aspartame:  Safe Sugar Substitute or Deadly Diet Aid?

Jessica Blucher

 I was looking around for a web paper topic and I was talking to my friend Anja, who is practically addicted to Diet Coke.  She drinks more Diet Coke than any other person I know.  She suggested I research aspartame.  Ah, aspartame.  It's a handy little substance.  Tha familar pink and blue packets of fake sugar is just one of those things we take for granted.  It tastes similar to sugar and has a low caloric content.  Nowadays, if there's something sweet out on the market, there's probably a version of it being sold that contains aspartame.  Pretty much anything labeled "diet' has it.  So with so many people consuming aspartame, it's not much of a surprise that people have started to wonder if it is safe or not.

 Well, there's plenty of news out there on the web about apsartame, but it's hard to tell what's true and what's not.  There have been varied claims as to how dangerours aspartame really is.  For example, some people claim that it causes their migraines.  That's no big deal compared to some of the other claims being made.  One famous article is the "Markle" one.  It initially started as a chain email.  The Internet article attributes numerous diseases, including multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, diabetic coma, memory loss, "Dessert (sic) Storm health problems," and others to aspartame intake. This incredible assertion by Ms. "Markle" simply has no basis in fact.  Wood alcohol (methanol) formed by the breakdown of aspartame is cited as the source of these health problems. The metabolic, nutritional and safety studies performed on aspartame, which are published in medical and scientific literature, document its safety.  (1) There is a lot of information out there on whether or not aspartame causes cancer.  For example,, has a report that says "brain cancer rates in the United States jumped 10 percent shortly after NutraSweet was approved by the FDA for widespread use in 1983.  The reports says that while there's no proof aspartame is connected to the rise, the increase is suspicious, especially in light of an earlier study showing rats given aspartame developed an unusually high number of brain tumors."  However, the article goes on to say, "The FDA and NutraSweet dismiss the concerns.  They say brain tumor rates started going up before aspartame was put on the market and then leveled off." (2)  Another source I looked at said "The National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) statistics indicate an impressive increase in the age-adjusted incidence rates of primary brain cancer since 1985, and possibly as early as 1984.  This phenomenon has been documented in the categories covering all races and both genders." (3)  Another site states, "Repeated studies in peer reviewed journals show no adverse effects of aspartame on seizures (rats, children, adults), weight gain, body temperature, cognitive/behavioral/neuropsychiatric/neurophysiologic function, brain/intestinal/liver hormones or enzymes, brain tumors, cancer, birth defects (rats and humans), Parkinson's disease, allergic responses, blood pressure, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, etc."  (4)  The IFIC's site states "It is physiologically impossible for aspartame to be a carcinogen.  Aspartame is broken down in the gastrointestinal tract to small amounts of common dietary components including the amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine.  We consume these same components in much greater amounts in common foods, such as milk, meat, fruits and vegetables.  The body handles these amino acids in the same way it handles them from other food sources.  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."  In case that wasn't reasurring, they also say "Prior to its approval, aspartame underwent one of the most thorough scientific reviews ever conducted. Regulators consider it one of the most widely tested ingredients in the food supply. The safety of aspartame has been affirmeapd by the FDA and leading independent health groups such as the American Medical Association."  (5)  The FDA does advise that "persons who have the rare hereditary disease phenylketonuria (PKU), have a problem with aspartame because they do not effectively metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, one of aspartame's components." Products that are sweetened with aspartame must carry a statement to advise consumers that they contain phenylalanine.  (6)  MIT did a study on aspartame, here's what their site had to say:  "Even daily large doses of the high-intensity sweetener aspartame, also known as NutraSweet, had no adverse effect on study subjects' health and well-being, a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week reported in the American Journal o Clinical Nutrition." (7)  If you want more news on the side that argues safety, says " Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied ingredients in the food supply. It was tested in more than 100 scientific studies prior to its approval by the FDA in 1981. These tests were conducted in animals and humans, including normal adults and children, lactating women and persons with diabetes, obesity and special genetic conditions. Aspartame was tested in amounts many times higher than individuals could consume in the diet.  Aspartame has also undergone extensive safety and toxicology testing including three two year bioassays in animals for cancer. One of these was a bioassay in pregnant rats and their offspring. In these tests it was clearly shown that aspartame is not carcinogenic and does not cause cancer."  (8)

 Well, I like sweet food, so I'll just do what I've always done.  I won't consume unusually large amounts of aspartame, but I won't stop ingesting it, either.

WWW Sources

1)Internet Article on Aspartame Rife with Misinformation, on the National Soft Drink Association website

2)Study suggests link between aspartame and brain cancer - November 18, 1996, on the CNN website

3)eScribe: aspartameNM: Message: [aspartameNM] Roberts: JAM: aspartame & brain cancer 1991, on

4)ASPARTAME (NUTRASWEET): NO DANGER,on the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation website

5)Everything You Need to Know About Aspartame,on the International Food Information Council website

6)Facts & Figures - Aspartame,on the Grocery Manufacturers of America website

7)MIT study reaffirms safety of artificial sweetener aspartame,on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website

8)Aspartame Fact Sheet -,on the website

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