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The Health Risks of Aspartame

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We all like a bit of sweetness in our lives, but when it comes enjoying the sweeter tastes, too much could be dangerous to our health. With the carbohydrate phobia that has ensued over the past decade, natural sweeteners like sugar and honey have received a lot of bad publicity. Sugary foods have been blamed for all sorts of evils, from weight gain, to behavioural disorders and immune system dysfunction. This scare has led to a multi-billion dollar “sugar-free” and “diet” industry that promotes the consumption of alternative and artificial sweeteners. But are we actually doing ourselves any justice by consuming these products?

The most widely used artificial sweetener, and perhaps the most controversial, is aspartame, which is marketed in 6000 products in 90 countries as a low calorie sugar alternative. The anti-aspartame contingency is large, and according to U.S. doctor, Dr. Joseph Mercola (www.mercola.com), aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. According to Mercola, some of these symptoms include headaches, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, tachycardia, insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss, and joint pain.

Aspartame Does Not Necessarily Aid Weight Loss

One of the main reasons aspartame first entered the market was as a weight-loss aid. A review study, which appeared in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2010 entitled Gain Weight by “going diet?” challenges the notion that artificial sweeteners help you lose weight. Researchers at Yale University tracked the use of artificial sweeteners (like saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose and neotame) and compared this against obesity rates in the United States. Results showed that as the percentage of people consuming artificial sweeteners and the amount of products containing them grew, so did obesity rates. Commenting on these observations, Australian doctor and author of The Liver Cleansing Diet, Dr Sandra Cabot believes that aspartame is the artificial sweetener mostly responsible. She explains how the liver breaks aspartame down into what she refers to as “toxic” compounds (namely phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol). This process, explains Cabot, requires a lot of energy from the liver, which makes less available for fat and sugar metabolism.

In 2010, researchers in Hungary fed a mixture of artificial sweeteners (including aspartame) at the amount of maximum Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and compared this to controls who received just water. Results, published in Acta Physiologica Hungarica showed that rats consuming the artificial sweetener mix gained more weight than the group fed water. There have been other studies that have shown that aspartame may benefit weight loss, but no randomized, controlled, prospective clinical follow-up studies have been done since 1997.

Health Effects of Aspartame

The link between aspartame and cancer has been a contentious issue over the years, especially since studies linking aspartame to cancer were done using exceptionally high doses of the sweetener. Fear was sparked in 2006 after the work of an Italian research team, led by Morando Soffritti and published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that aspartame caused carcinogenicity in rats at a dose level close to the acceptable daily intake for humans. In 2011 another group of Italian researchers demonstrated in The American Journal of Industrial Medicine that aspartame could cause angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation) in vitro.

There is also some concern that aspartame may affect brain function. According to Mercola, aspartame increases the amount of free aspartate and glutamate in the body, which then act as neurotransmitters in the brain. He explains that in excess, these components can kill neurons by over “exciting” them. He explains that although our blood brain barriers can protect us from these components, in excess some still pass through. The risk is particularly high in children, whose blood brain barriers are not yet fully developed.

A review study published by scientists in South Africa in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008 examined the effects of phenylalanine (a main constituent of aspartame) on the brain. The review, which was supported by more than 50 scientific references, found that aspartame was able to disrupt brain chemistry by lowering key neurotransmitters levels, which could affect mood, behaviour and appetite. It was also reported that aspartame and its breakdown products can “excite” nerve cells, which indirectly causes a very high rate of neuron depolarization.

The Pro-Aspartame Contingency

Despite the mounting evidence on the ill effects of aspartame, review

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