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Aspartame: The REAL Story?

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Biology 103
2000 Second Web Report
On Serendip

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


Comments made prior to 2007

Caroline Dyer's paper on aspartame contains faulty information. Carefree gum contains SACCHARIN, not aspartame. And saccharin has indeed been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals ... Susan Bridges, 12 June 2004



how can you guys possibly say that aspartame is not dagerous if you stated that it has very effective side effects.Do you know how many patients and people die from aspartame daily. In school we are studying the use of aspartame and we watched a video today that clearly state aspartame is one of the causes of cancer. Aspartame is found in many diffrent chewing gums which by the rate of teenagers th at chew gum are most-likely able to catch cancer or they are put in the risk of cancer ... Kay, 8 February 2007


Bryan Wallis's picture

My Real Story

Let me tell you the real story. 1.5 years ago I started drinking Coke Zero because I was worried about sugar intake, I joked about the aspartame might kill me though. For the past 8 months I have been suffering from endless iching, skin rash, hive like reactions, the more I scratch the worse it gets, all from a huge build up of antihistamines.

I suddenly realized I might be reacting adversely to the aspartame. I stopped drinking Coke Zero and over then next few days all the symptoms have slowly disappeared. I had toxic levels of this stuff in my system and it was slowly causing a degrade in my health, thank goodness I stopped consuming this stuff, it should be banned.

Denver DUI Lawyer's picture

What about xylitol?

I have to agree with the author in saying that avoiding a few calories is not worth risking your health. Even though there haven't been many studies proving that aspartame is not safe, I believe that it is just a matter of time before a new study comes out and they tell us that the sweeteners are actually bad for us. When I do use a sugar alternative I use xylitol, which supposedly is a natural sweetener that is safe on the teeth.

Serendip Visitor's picture


Stevia is also called the "sweet leaf." It is all-natural and is much, much sweeter than aspartame.

Pamela's picture

It's scary...

It's a scary thought that so many people are still in the dark as to what aspartame is and how it can literally wreak havoc on the human body. It really is an outrage that this stuff is still considered "safe" and allowed into many of the foods being sold today. Thanks so much for putting this page together and helping to spread the word.

Lisa M.'s picture

Aspartame dangers and disinformation

The reports and studies that show aspartame to be a dangerous neurotoxin are far more than "conspiracy theories", as the Dail Mail's recent article would have us believe. A huge proportion of aspartame is phenylalanine. The body does not process this compound as it would a naturally occurring source because contains a disproportionate amount of phenylalanine. The whole point of the movie 'Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World' was to find out whether such claims on the internet were true or not. 7000 miles of travel and face to face talks with the players sheds a lot of light on this subject. The effects of aspartame are documented by the FDA's own data. In 1995 the agency was forced, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release a list of ninety-two aspartame symptoms reported by thousands of victims. It appears this is only the tip of the iceberg. H. J. Roberts, MD, published the medical text "Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic" -- 1,000 pages of symptoms and diseases triggered by this neurotoxin including the sordid history of its approval. Good info can be found at

John's picture


"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. "

The NIH re-examined statistical data you mention and found that the increase in malignant brain cancers actually began its rise in 1973, long before aspartame was available in the marketplace. Furthermore, the statistics indicated that the incidence of those cancers leveled off in 1985. Consumption of food products containing aspartame increased dramatically between its FDA approval in 1981 and today, with no corresponding increase in brain cancers of any kind. If a link between brain cancer and aspartame in humans exists, it certainly isn't borne out by the statistics.

Anonymous's picture

Hrmm, why would you credit

Hrmm, why would you credit those websites at the bottom and not update any of the links. Is this the REAL story? I doubt it, a REAL story has proper links to give me information so that I can get my own interpretation.