Artificial Sweetener: Aspartame

This post summarises is my take on the artificial sweetener – Aspartame. I wrote this piece as an assignment for one of my nutrition subject:

Prelude

Image source: http://worldtruth.tv/aspartame-is-linked-to-leukemia-and-lymphoma-in-new-landmark-study-on-humans/

Image source: http://worldtruth.tv/aspartame-is-linked-to-leukemia-and-lymphoma-in-new-landmark-study-on-humans/

Artificial sweeteners are food additives that taste sweet like sugar without the added calories. 160 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, they are also called intense sweeteners (Answer.com, – a). They are used in food products and beverages to replace sugar, yielding lower calorie versions of the same products, with “Sugar-free” or “Diet” on their labels. They are also available as tabletop sweeteners of the shelf, in tablets, powder, or sachets. Generally, artificial sweeteners are used to lower the calorie content of sweet treats for weight management; to control blood sugar levels for patient with diabetics; and to lower the risk of tooth decay (Answer.com, – a).

Five major intense sweeteners are currently approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). They are saccharine (954), aspartame (951), acesulfame-K (950), sucralose (955), and cyclamate (952) (Clemons 2010).

In this article, I will focus my discussion on aspartame, the most common artificial sweetener in use today.

What is Aspartame?

equalAspartame (Brand names: NutraSweet and Equal) is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is used over 90 countries worldwide in over 6,000 products, including soft drinks, chewing gum, frozen desserts, yogurt, tabletop sweeteners, vitamins and cough drops, etc. (Aspartame Information Centre, 2012).

Chemically, aspartame (N-L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine-l-methyl ester, a.k.a APM) is the methyl-ester derivative of the dipetide L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine, which in turn is the combination of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine (Bettelheim, Brown, Campbell & Farrell, 2010).  Proponents of aspartame often stress that the sweetener is made from natural substances since aspartic acid and phenylalanine are found naturally in protein containing foods, and methyl esters in fruits and vegetable (Aspartame Information Centre, 2012). Although these compounds are found naturally, aspartame itself is not! Aspartame has to be manufactured through elaborate processes of fermentation, synthesis, and purification (Answer.com, – b).   

Discovery and Approval

James Schlatter, a chemist of G.D. Searle Company, discovered aspartame in 1965. An accidental spillage of APM on his hand and subsequently licking of his finger caused him to discover the substance’s sweet taste (Wikipedia, – a). The use of Aspartame was initially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974. However, the approval was revoked the following year after reviews and additional testing. A chain of controversies over the safety studies submitted by Searle and alleged conflict of interest of government officials in the approval process delayed its approval for use in dry goods until 1981 (Wikipedia, – b). The approval was extended to carbonated beverages in 1983, and for use in other beverages, baked goods, and confections in 1993. In 1996, aspartame was allowed it to be used in all foods (Wikipedia, – b).

Possible Health Concerns

Despite its approval, the health safety of aspartame continues to be questioned by many doctors, nutritionists, and researchers. According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, in high concentrations, can disrupt nerve cell communication and can cause cell death. Suspected neurotoxic effects of these isolated amino acids are headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and seizures (Dean, 2005) Aspartame’s potential interference with normal brain chemistry was discussed in detail by Dr. Joseph Mercola in his book “Sweet Deception: Why Splenda, NutraSweet, and the FDA May Be Hazardous to Your Health”. In which, he linked many chronic illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, neuroendocrine disorders, dementia, and hypoglycemia, to the use of aspartame (Mercola, 2006) (Mercola.com, 2011).

Dr. H.J. Roberts, a long term critic of aspartame, collected more than 1200 cases of severe reactions to aspartame over the years. He claimed that aspartame use can initiate or aggravate the symptoms of diabetes mellitus, hypoglycemia, convulsions, headache, birth defects, depression, hyperthyroidism, hypertension, as well as multiple sclerosis (Roberts H., 2001). He also suggested that the rapid increase in brain tumor cases in the USA starting from 1984 was due to the introduction of aspartame in diet soda. This was discussed in “Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World”; a documentary by Cori Brackett that explored the various side-effects of aspartame (Brackett & Waldron, 2005).  In 2006, European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) published a study demonstrated that an increase in the incidence of cancer in rats was linked to aspartame consumption (Soffritti, M. et al., 2006).

Official Safety Assurance

In view of these health concerns, government authorities worldwide, with the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) playing the leading role, continue to evaluate and validate the safety of aspartame. To date, FDA and EFSA found insufficient scientific evidence to support the various health concerns voiced by its critics (Calorie Control Council, 2009). In an extensive safety evaluation of over 500 studies related to aspartame, the expert panel, led by Dr. Berna Magnuson, concluded that aspartame poses no health risk at levels found in the human diet. The panel found “no credible link between aspartame and conditions related to the nervous system and behavior or any other symptom or illness”; and there was “no evidence of genetic toxicity, no credible evidence of carcinogenicity, and no evidence to support an association between aspartame and the development of obesity” (Magnuson B, Burdock G, Doull J et al. , 2007).

The cancer study of ERF was evaluated and dismissed by EFSA’s Scientific Panel. According to the panel, “no indication of any genotoxic or carcinogenic potential of aspartame was found” and that “there is no reason to revise the previously established Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame” (Calorie Control Council, 2009). The ADI of aspartame is set at 40 mg/kg bw/day by EFSA and 50 mg/kg bw/day by the FDA. Following a survey in 2003, FSANZ concluded that adverse health effects could not occur since average Australian consumers eat only less than 15% of the ADI (Cancer Council Western Australia, 2010).

The Calorie Control Council, an association representing the low-calorie and low fat food & beverage industry, published a white paper in 2009 to educate the consumers about aspartame. It refuted all the health concerns with studies from various medical establishments and concluded that “aspartame has been tested for more than three decades, in more than 200 studies, with the same result: Aspartame is safe.” (Calorie Control Council, 2009).

However, one effect of aspartame is irrefutable. Aspartame can cumulate and cause health problems for individuals who have Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disease that prevents phenylalanine from being properly metabolized. For this reason, aspartame-containing foods must state, “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine,” in the U.S. (Aspartame Information Centre, 2012).

My Take ON THIS susbtance

I will not recommend the use of aspartame despite all the safety assurance. After all, it is a synthetic food additive that does not exist naturally and it adds no nutritional value to the food. The use of it goes against Naturopathic nutrition guidelines that encourage the consumption of natural, fresh, and unprocessed food. In addition, aspartame is most common found in carbonated soft drinks and many processed ‘junk’ food; for anyone who wishes to eat healthily, instead of opting for any “diet” or “low sugar” version, my advice is to remove them from one’s diet completely. Lastly, for anyone who cannot bear without the sweet taste but cannot afford the additional calories from natural sugar, there exists a better alternative: Stevia. Stevia is a completely natural herb, an excellent sweetener that helps to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics by helping to regulate pancreatic function (Stephen D. et al., 2010). Why risk taking aspartame when we have a much better natural non-calorie sweetener?

Latest Development

Image source: http://www.norwalkkettlebellcamp.com/blog/can-diet-soda-kill/

Image source: http://www.norwalkkettlebellcamp.com/blog/can-diet-soda-kill/

The above article was written in August 2012.  Following that, there is another new study published in October 2012. In this new study, the researchers prospectively analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study for a 22-year period. A total of 77,218 women and 47,810 men were included in the analysis, for a total of 2,278,396 person-years of data (Schernhammer, et al., 2012). Their results shows that  just one can (355 ml) of diet soda daily leads to :

  •  42 percent higher leukemia risk in men and women (pooled analysis)
  • 102 percent higher multiple myeloma risk (in men only)
  • 31 percent higher non-Hodgkin  lymphoma risk (in men only)

This is a high quality study and the result shows a clear link between aspartame and cancer. Sadly, in response to this latest study the Calorie Control Council was quick to refute the findings from the study as “weak, misleading, and critically flawed” by cited that there are numerous serious limitations of the study. The Calorie Contorl Council contitune to state that “aspartame is safe”. (Calorie Control Council, 2012)

You are your own judge. The verdict is up to you.

– Astrid Alauda.

References

Answer.com, (- a). Artificial Sweetener. Retrieved 22 Aug 2012 from http://www.answers.com/topic/artificial-sweetener#ixzz24G6Yif90

Answer.com, (- b). Aspertame. Retrieved 22 Aug 2012 from http://www.answers.com/topic/aspartame

Aspertame Information Centre, (2012). Your Questions Answered. Retrieved 22 Aug 2012 from http://www.aspartame.org/aspartame_faq.html

Bettelheim, F., Brown W., Campbell M., & Farrell, S. (2010). Introduction to General, Organic, and Biochemistry, 9th Edition. Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning. USA

Brackett C. & Waldron J. (2005). Aspartame – Sweet Misery, A Poisoned World! [Documentary DVD], Sound and Fury Productions, Inc. USA. Retrieved 22 Aug 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0UDeydlEDM

Calorie Control Council, (2009). Aspertame. Retrieved 22 Aug 2012 from http://www.aspartame.org/pdf/2009Aspartamebrochure.pdf

Calorie Control Council, (2012). Recent Study on Aspartame and Cancer Critically Flawed. Retrieved 22 Feb 2013 from http://www.aspartame.org/aspartame_pr_20121024.html

Cancer Council Western Australia, (2010). Artificial sweeteners and cancer. Cancer Myth Fact Sheet. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.cancerwa.asn.au/resources/2010-08-05-artificial-sweeteners-cancer-myth-fact-sheet.pdf

Clemons R. (2010). Sweeteners. Choice Online. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/nutrition/sweeteners/page/intense-sweeteners.aspx

Dean C. (2005). Death by Modern Medicine. Matrix Verite Media. USA. pp. 269-271

Geib A. (2012). More aspartame side effects revealed – headaches, blurred vision, neurological symptoms and more. Natural News: 28 Mar 2012. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.naturalnews.com/035382_aspartame_side_effects_headaches.html#ixzz24ARYWId5

Harvard School of Public Health, (-). Sugary Drinks or Diet Drinks — What’s the Best Choice? The Nutrition Source. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/sugary-vs-diet-drinks/index.html

Hull, J. (1998). Sweet Poison: How the World’s Most Popular Artificial Sweetener Is Killing Us – My Story. New Horizon Press, USA.

Magnuson B, Burdock G, Doull J et al. (2007). “Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies”. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 37 (8): 629–727. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/aspartame912.pdf

Mercola, J. (2006). Sweet Deception: Why Splenda, NutraSweet, and the FDA May Be Hazardous to Your Health. Thomas Nelson Inc, USA.

Mercola.com, (2011).  Aspartame is, by Far, the Most Dangerous Substance on the Market that is Added To Foods. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/11/06/aspartame-most-dangerous-substance-added-to-food.aspx

Roberts, H. (2001). Aspartame disease: an ignored epidemic. Sunshine Sentinel Press, USA.

Schernhammer, E.S., et al. (2012). Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec: 96(6):1419-28. Retrieved 22 Feb 2013 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23097267

Stephen D., et al. (2010) . Effects of Stevia, Aspartame, and Sucrose on Food Intake, Satiety, and Postprandial Glucose and Insulin Levels. Appetite. August 2010. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900484/?tool=pmcentrez

Soffritti, M., et al. (2006). First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats. Environ Health Perspect. 2006. 114(3): p. 379-85.

 

Wikipedia, (- a). Aspartame. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame

Wikipedia, (- b). Aspartame controversy. Retrieved 21 Aug 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame_controversy

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