The bitter truth about the artificial sweetener aspartame stems back to the 1960s when it was first discovered. Today, aspartame is found in over 600 products worldwide. Companies like Pepsi often use it in their diet sodas. Fortunately, following serious push-back from consumers and scientists over the potential dangers of aspartame, companies have started to question continuing their use of aspartame in future products.
In August of 2015, Pepsi officially discontinued the use of aspartame in their Diet Pepsi soda line. Diet soda drinkers aware of aspartame’s presence rejoiced. However, Diet Pepsi sales have dropped during the 2016 fiscal year since their decision to eliminate aspartame. In an effort to increase sales, they are bringing aspartame back.
Today, aspartame is the most widely consumed artificial sweetener in the world. Thanks to slick and crafty marketing efforts, people believe it is “safer and healthier” than regular cane sugar. Interestingly enough, aspartame accounts for 75% of adverse reactions to food additives reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The most commonly reported reactions to aspartame are headaches and migraines. Other reactions reported include seizures, depression, weight gain, and even death. Yet somehow, products containing aspartame continue to be marketed as “healthy options that support calorie restriction.”
Let’s briefly touch on the science behind aspartame as a substance. It is composed of 40% aspartic acid, 50% phenylalanine, and 10% methanol. Both aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids that can be good for humans in varying amounts but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. You ingest both of these chemicals excessively when consuming aspartame.
In fact, aspartame is an excitotoxin that stimulates brain cells to death. This is why you encounter so many studies linking aspartame to neurodegeneration and neurodevelopment problems. Too much phenylalanine is linked to changes in our brain’s physiology depleting the brain of serotonin: the neurotransmitter that regulates our mood.
Furthermore, naturally occurring methanol (like what is found in fruits and vegetables) is firmly bonded to pectin. This allows it to be safely transported through our digestive tract. With aspartame, the phenylalanine-methyl bond called a “methyl ester” is very weak. The methyl group on the phenylalanine can break off and form methanol which is dangerous to humans.
This methanol is then carried to susceptible tissues around the human body where Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH) converts it to formaldehyde (the same fluid that is used for embalming the deceased.) Of course, our bodies lack the necessary enzymes required to eliminate accumulating levels of formaldehyde and so it wreaks havoc on our proteins and DNA.
Methanol is linked to breast and prostate cancer as well as oxidative damage in the human brain. Other animals have a protective mechanism that allows methanol to be broken down into formic acid which is rather harmless. The major biochemical problem with methanol arises in humans because of the difference in how we metabolize these chemicals compared to all other animals. This is why toxicity testing on all other animals with aspartame is flawed. It does not fully pertain to us.
You may then wonder why aspartame is still on the market. I know I did. This is the interesting part I learned about back in 2013.
Aspartame was discovered by accident in 1965 by James Schlatter, a chemist at G. D. Searle Company, who was testing an anti-ulcer drug. He licked his fingertip to turn the page in his notebook and noticed the incredible sweetness of what later became known as aspartame. G. D. Searle immediately began pushing for the approval of aspartame on the market to no avail. A number of major studies linked aspartame to a large number of side effects including a major risk for brain tumors. Another study later revealed fraud and manipulation of the data that was submitted within the initial aspartame studies.
Aspartame was struggling to gain FDA approval.
One day after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, G. D. Searle Company re-applied to the FDA for use of aspartame as a food sweetener. G. D. Searle’s CEO Donald Rumsfeld had Doctor Arthur Hall Hayes Junior appointed as the new FDA Commissioner. Hayes then appointed a 5 person scientific commission to review the current decision on aspartame. When it became clear that the panel was leaning towards upholding the ban, Hayes proceeded to install a SIXTH member to the commission who then voted in favor of aspartame. He broke the tie with his own vote which led to the inevitable approval of the sweetener in 1983.
In 1985, Monsanto purchased G. D. Searle and made Searle Pharmaceuticals and NutraSweet two separate subsidiaries of the company.
Today, there are over 900 studies revealing the detrimental side effects of aspartame. Chronic exposure to aspartame can cause and/or worsen serious conditions including asthma, lymphomas, leukemia, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, tumors, epilepsy, and brain cancer. These connections to cancer should not be ignored. The longest ever human-aspartame study spanning 22 years was conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Harvard University and found a clear association between aspartame and risk of blood cancers. Pressure from the industry forced them to downplay their results. In fact, most of the studies that have found aspartame to be completely safe were sponsored by NutraSweet.
Despite all of these red flags, manufacturers still continue to use aspartame in their products. Did you know the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation both petitioned the FDA to change the standard of identity for milk to allow aspartame to be added to it without having to list it on the label? If that doesn’t sound suspicious, I don’t know what does.
The story behind aspartame is an interesting one for sure. As controversial as it is, there is no denying the shady chain of events that led up to its approval. Personally speaking, I gave up drinking soda back in 2013 and haven’t had any regrets since. If, however, you choose to continue to drink Pepsi and other diet sodas, I urge you: please do not support Pepsi’s light blue product line containing aspartame.
During times of uncertainty, choose what is most likely the safer option.