How Safe is Aspartame?

Aspartame is known commercially as “Nutrasweet” when added to products or “Equal” when it is in the form of a sugar substitute in a packet. It should not be confused with Sweet-n-Low, which is saccharine.


If you are one of the millions of Americans who is concerned about being overweight or about eating too much sugar, chances are you have eaten or drank products containing aspartame. You have been told by the FDA and the manufacturers of these products that they are perfectly safe. But, just how safe are they?


Just recently, I’ve been made aware of a large body of medical information questioning the safety of these products. If you use any diet sodas containing aspartame or any of the other thousands of products which contain it, I suggest you listen carefully because some of your physical, mental or emotional complaints may be due to their use.


Do you have any idea what percentage of all complaints received by the FDA are about aspartame? You probably will be as shocked as I was to learn that between 80 to 85% of all complaints received by the FDA are due to aspartame. By 1987, the FDA had received more than 6,000 complaints, including 250 involving epileptic seizures.


How much aspartame do Americans eat? The average American consumes over 14 pounds of aspartame each year and this amount has been rising daily. Since many of you out there and I avoid it completely, some of you are ingesting a lot more than 14 pounds per year. In April, 1993, aspartame was approved for use in baked goods and mixes which greatly added to the 4,200 products already containing the synthetic sweetener.


Symptoms which May be Due to Aspartame

What kinds of symptoms may occur as a result of ingesting aspartame? They may involve almost any system of the body. Probably the most common are headaches, including migraines. As I mentioned, one can also experience seizures. Some pilots have lost their licenses after having experienced seizures from aspartame. Several articles have appeared in flying magazines.


Other neurologic or psychiatric symptoms include dizziness, unsteadiness, confusion, severe drowziness and sleepiness, numbness, hyperactivity–especially in children, severe depression, irritability, anxiety, aggression, personality changes, insomnia and phobias.


Visual changes may include blurred vision, blindness, pain and reduced tears. Ringing or buzzing in the ears, hearing impairment or noise intolerance occur in some people. Palpitations, shortness of breath or recent high blood pressure may mimic a heart condition.


Other systems that can be affected are the gastrointestinal system, including diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain; the skin, including itching and hives; and the endocrine system, including loss of control of diabetes, menstrual changes, marked weight loss or gain and aggravated low blood sugar.


To see if you are being affected by aspartame, eliminate all aspartame products for about two weeks. If some of your symptoms improve, you may then reintroduce aspartame and see if your symptoms return. If they do, you should probably eliminate aspartame entirely.


Mechanisms in the Biochemistry and Pharmacology of Aspartame which May Explain the Various Symptoms

Research over the past twenty years has shown that certain “natural” substances found in the body act as excitotoxins in the brain when found at high levels. These substances can overstimulate and kill brain cells, causing mild to severe brain damage. There has been speculation that this mechanism may help to explain such diseases as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Examples of neuroexcitatory toxins in high concentrations are monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG and components or breakdown products of aspartame. The effects of these substances are both additive and cumulative.


Aspartame consists of three molecules joined together. They are: (1) 50% phenyl alanine, an amino acid found in food, which can be neurotoxic in high quantities and can cause seizures in certain susceptible people; (2) 40% aspartic acid, also an amino acid found in food, which is a neuroexciter and neurotoxic in high concentrations; and (3) 10% methanol or methyl alcohol, which is also called wood alcohol. Free methanol is quite toxic even in relatively low concentrations.


The FDA and manufacturers response to the many expressed concerns of the damaging effects of methanol in aspartame is to point out that it occurs naturally in fruit juices and vegetables. They neglect to state that in these foods, the methanol is in a bound form and the human body does not have the digestive enzymes that breakdown the pectin and release the methanol into the bloodstream. In addition, natural methanol is always accompanied by ethanol in higher concentrations, which acts to protect the body against any damage. The methanol in aspartame is in free form and can be absorbed.


Some of the breakdown metabolic products of these substances are also toxic and carcinogenic. Thus, you can see that there are many possible mechanisms by which aspartame is potentially toxic and dangerous.


An additional concern about aspartame is that it tends to lower serotonin in the brain. Low brain serotonin levels are associated with depression. The FDA has banned the food supplement tryptophan, the essential amino acid responsible for making serotonin in the brain. With so much aspartame being used and no tryptophan available to increase brain serotonin levels, is it any wonder that the new anti-depressant serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs, such as Prozac, have become so popular.


Who is at risk for experiencing aspartame toxicity? At least 30% of the population is sensitive to moderate doses of aspartame and may suffer from any of the symptoms that I’ve previously discussed. Women are 3 times more likely to suffer symptoms and pregnant women may put their unborn babies at risk. The undeveloped nervous systems of children are more vulnerable to even mild doses. An example of a subpopulation of adults who may be more susceptible to symptoms are phenyl ketonuria or PKU carriers.


Phenyl ketonuria or PKU is an inherited disease in which babies lack an enzyme necessary to convert phenyl alanine to tyrosine. If given foods containing phenyl alanine, they accumulate excessive phenyl alanine in the brain, which results in permanent brain damage and mental retardation. Their parents are carriers of the disease and also have some difficulty metabolizing phenyl alanine. These carriers of PKU, of which there are between four and twenty million in the United States, are among those most susceptible to the toxic effects of aspartame.


The FDA & manufacturers of aspartame claim that all of the adverse symptoms reported are “anecdotal”. Because it is common that a person will not experience noticeable illness from a short term usage of aspartame, this is taken as proof that there is no problem with safety. Unfortunately, this position ignores the fact that the effects of aspartame poisoning are cumulative.


If an approved drug had as many complaints as aspartame, it would have been removed from the market long ago. But, aspartame has been approved as a safe food additive and not a drug. The manufacturer does not have to track adverse reactions once the food additive has been approved, as in the case of new drugs. Aspartame was approved for use in dry foods and as a sugar substitute in 1981 and for soft drinks in 1983.


Prior to 1981, many questions had been raised about the scientific integrity of Searle, the company producing aspartame. The FDA was concerned that Searle had failed to submit important information, such as the possible link between brain tumors and aspartame in animal studies. In a recently published medical journal article, Dr. H.J. Roberts points out that since aspartame was introduced, there has been an enormous increase in the incidence of brain cancer in the United States, especially in children. He is the author of the book Aspartame (Nutrasweet): Is it Safe?


The history of the FDA approval process for this substance raises many questions about possible conflicts of interest. Suffice to say no less than 10 officials involved in the approval process took jobs with aspartame-related companies, soon after leaving their governmental posts.


In 1987, the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network was founded. They have put together a series of articles in a spiral-bound book called The Deadly Deception: Aspartame.

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Avatar Written by Michael Schachter MD FACAM

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