Posts Tagged ‘artificial’

What better way to start my series on the safety of the various sweeteners out there than with aspartame, the most debated of them all.  Before we dig into that, we have to resolve a few issues though.

Why isn’t this called artificial sweetener safety? This is because the terms artificial and natural are just silly.  I understand the motivation to think of anything that is “artificial” must be bad, but we now live in the 21st century and we have the means to actually evaluate what is and is not safe in a scientific, methodological manner.  Relying on our impulse to think this or that thing must cause cancer is silly at this point when we can pinpoint the troublesome compounds and test them.  In the case of this series of articles, we will examine sweeteners; I will start with aspartame and we’ll work to sugar and beyond.  The main thing to take away here is that artificial doesn’t mean bad, it just means that it isn’t found in nature.  I can tell you that I would be happy if arsenic wasn’t found in nature, but unfortunately it is.  I won’t label it natural and therefore good, I’ll just try to avoid it.

History of aspartame

A brief history of the introduction of aspartame to the American food supply will probably let you know why it is that the additive has a such a bad reputation.           A company called Searle (much later was bought out by another shady character, Monsanto) introduces aspartame as the zero calorie sweetener to replace the repulsive saccharin, AKA Sweet n Low.  They fund many peer-reviewed studies to prove its safety and it is unceremoniously approved.  Later, the validity of the studies is called into question.  Much review by the FDA concludes that while there were a few “inconsistencies” in the studies, the results were not significantly affected in any of the studies.  Similar investigations were carried out more than once, always ending with the same conclusion that aspartame is safe for humans at normal consumption levels.  The shadiness here is that twice, top FDA officials left their posts to work by companies owned by Searle.  This above all else has fed into the theories about aspartame’s supposed lack of safety.

If you are troubled by this, keep this in mind: this kind of job switching occurs in every industry that is regulated by the government.  It is hard to tell what is corrupt when the simple truth is that excellent regulators make excellent employees and vice versa.

Aspartame today

Fast forward to the present, where aspartame is approved for consumption in virtually every country that is industrialized enough to regulate food.  One scientist has declared aspartame the most researched food ingredient, ever.  The threshold for safe consumption equates to about 20 cans of diet soda daily for the rest of your life.  If you plan to drink more diet soda than that or just slam powdered aspartame, perhaps consider other options.  If not, don’t stress about it.

What’s in it, how do you digest it?

Now…I don’t expect you to just take my word for it.  Let’s talk about aspartame in the body.  Before it reaches the bloodstream, it hydrolyzes to three components: aspartate, phenylalanine, and methanol.

Aspartate: aspartate is an amino acid that is one of the most common in a human diet.   Nonetheless, it receives blame for neurotoxicity and other supposed side effects.  You’d have to just about cease being a human in order to cut aspartate out of your diet and a single bite of chicken will provide more aspartate than a can of diet soda.   No worries with this component.

Phenylalanine: If phenylalanine can harm you, then you’ve already heard of it.  Phenylketonuria is a condition that involves terrible responses to phenylalanine.  It is rare and you have surely consumed much of it with no problems by now if you don’t have that condition.  Otherwise, phenylalanine is yet another harmless amino acid that will be present everywhere in your food supply.

Methanol: this is the most troubling of the aspartame components.  Methanol toxicity is a real thing and too much methanol can “mess you up.”  As often is the case with the health crowd though, no attention is paid to the significance of anything.  Methanol WOULD be bad if it were present in a high amount.  Studies have shown that the methanol components do not even reach the bloodstream in measurable levels (the other components do not either).  A useful comparison would be natural fruit juices, which are more dense in methanol than your aspartame-sweetened drinks.  Your body has no problem dealing with these kinds of levels of methanol since we evolved eating a lot of fruit.

That’s it!  Aspartame isn’t some crazy chemical with countless components, it is in fact just those three things.

State of research

Research almost always finds aspartame safe.  A common problem with rodent research (the most common research being done) is that rodents develop tumors, both benign and malignant, at an alarming rate regardless of their diet.  It is just part of being genetically inferior.  Finding tumors in rats when studying aspartame does not necessarily indicate carcinogenicity because of this.  Several have taken issue with a couple recent studies due to this confounding factor.

Some have problems with the fact that much of the research, especially early on, was funded by the company that put out aspartame.  Well…this is how it works.  What motivates you to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to study something if not the fact that you NEED it to be studied to sell it?  This just par for the course in the industry and the reason we still have peer review.  Moreover, researchers are putting their reputation on the line when they sign off on a study.  These are usually college professors that don’t want to be shamed for lying.  Do not  think that safety studies that are not funded by aspartame makers are “independent” either — powerful people in the sugar industry, for example, have as much reason to find it unsafe as their competitors need to find it to be safe.  In the end, the pharmacology speaks volumes and that is why I covered it first.  There is no debate as to how we digest aspartame and what it is made of — we know enough about the separate components that corrupt studies wouldn’t matter if they existed.

If you are looking for information on aspartame research, please avoid Dr. Mercola.  That guy has spent much of his adult life trying to take down aspartame despite the lack of evidence for it…and don’t worry, he has an alternate sweetener to sell you too! :hmm:

Side effects?

So why do people complain of “side effects?”  Well, there are a couple reasons.  First of all, aspartame is a known trigger of migraines in those that are susceptible.  This puts it in the category of “well…everything” as a potential migraine trigger.  People are much quicker to call the FDA when they believe aspartame gave them a headache, though, because they were already told that aspartame is bad.  It also goes without saying that people are apt to blame aspartame for anything unusual that happens to them when they have ingested it.  Many of the complaints I see attributed to aspartame are consistent with caffeine intake as well (hmm…).  It goes without saying though, if it gives you problems you should just discontinue use.  There are plenty of other options nowadays, which I will get to in the following articles in this series.

I use it

I do not buy aspartame in bulk to sweeten things but I have no qualms ingesting it via diet sodas or other items.  I would call it the “least” safe of the artificial sweeteners, but they’re really all basically completely safe.  I choose another sweetener because I think that one tastes better.  More on that later!