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More on Sweeteners: Aspartame
July 22, 2013
Once again, I’d like to thank everyone for their commentary, feedback, and questions regarding the two sweeteners I’ve recently written about: Splenda and Nectresse. Due to popular demand, I’ve decided to extend my series and focus this week on another standby, aspartame.
Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, and as you likely know, this sweetener is used in thousands of foods, candies, and beverages. It’s also used in some medicines and vitamins. One of the drawbacks of aspartame is that it’s not particularly heat stable, which means that it’s really not suitable for cooking or baking.
People who have a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) should not use aspartame or any product containing this sweetener. That’s because people with PKU can’t properly metabolize phenylalanine and levels of this amino acid can build up, causing intellectual disability and other serious health problems. PKU occurs in 1 in 10,000–15,000 newborns in the US, and most cases are detected shortly after birth.
Aspartame is probably one of the most studied ingredients ever. More than 200 scientific studies have proven its safety. Nevertheless, much criticism and skepticism about this sweetener abounds. Countless Web sites on the Internet extol its danger; one Web site is named AspartameKills.com. Why is there such hype about this sweetener? According to many people (experts and nonexperts alike), aspartame causes the following issues (I’ll just list a few):
In addition, aspartame is believed (by some) to worsen existing conditions, including the following:
Understandably, most people would probably pause and think twice about using a product that is supposedly the cause of the above symptoms and conditions. However, most of these claims are unproven or unfounded by clinical studies. Anecdotal reports are one thing (and by the way, if you believe that any food or product causes a particular symptom, it’s wise to avoid it), but there is little credible scientific evidence that aspartame causes any of the above.
Studies have been done investigating whether aspartame causes cancer. These studies are done with lab animals (and remember that results in rats and mice often do not apply to humans). An Italian study suggested that aspartame caused leukemia and lymphoma in rats; however, the results have been questioned by other researchers, so the study is inconclusive. As far as human studies, researchers look at the incidence of certain types of cancer in populations of people. Again, there is little evidence that aspartame is the cause of any type of cancer.
One of the concerns about using aspartame is that when it’s broken down in the body into its two amino acids, methanol is formed. Methanol, better known as wood alcohol, is a toxic compound. It’s used in paint thinner, antifreeze, and glass cleaners. Obviously, it’s disturbing to think that drinking a can of diet soda sweetened with aspartame is like drinking paint thinner. But that’s not the case. Methanol is found naturally in fruit and vegetable juices, whiskey, wine, and beer. A glass of tomato juice provides about six times more methanol than a beverage sweetened with aspartame. The liver is very well equipped to handle the amount of methanol that we consume from foods and beverages.
What does all of this mean for you? Hopefully by now you know that I don’t endorse products and that I believe the decision to use a product is an individual one. Assess your own degree of comfort with using aspartame (or any sweetener, for that matter). And keep in mind the practice of moderation: Drinking a can of diet soda here and there is likely no cause for alarm. But if you’re uncomfortable with that, avoidance is the safest bet!
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