Aspartame – As sweet as we think?

Artificial sweeteners

There is a lot of conflicting information about aspartame available to consumers.  Soft drink companies and government regulators will tell you that it is safe.  On the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website they state that “Scientific evidence to date supports the safety of aspartame for use as a sweetener in food.” but there is in fact a lot of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Aspartame was initially approved in the US in 1974.  The initial approval process raised allegations of bribery and corruption, which prompted many people to doubt its safety, but governments have stood firm in their statements that it is safe.  Over the years there has been increasing evidence that this is not true.

The initial fear was that aspartame could cause cancer.  These concerns seem to be unfounded, but scientists have discovered it causes other problems.  Most recently a French study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed 66,000 women over 14 years.  The authors found that, compared to regular soft drinks, there was a 15% higher risk for diabetes in those who drank just 500ml/week of diet soft drinks, and a 59% higher risk for those who drank 1.5L/week. Although aspartame is suggested for people with diabetes, it may actually be making it worse.

In a 2011 study in the US, people who drank diet soft drinks, as an overall group, had a 70% greater increase in waist circumference than non-users. Those who were in the highest bracket and drank two or more diet soft drinks a day had a 500% greater increase in waist circumference than non-users.

One of the metabolites of aspartame is methanol.  There have also been studies that have found detectable methanol in the blood after chronic consumption of aspartame affecting the brain.

There have been many studies on rats and mice consuming aspartame.  Although these can’t be directly applied to humans, it is cause for caution.  Aspartame has been found to promote hyperglycemia and insulin intolerance and impair spatial cognition and memory.  It may accelerate atherosclerosis as well as lead to liver damage.  Aspartame and saccharin consumption, when compared to sucrose (sugar), resulted in increased weight gain even at the same caloric intake.  So even if you are eating a low calorie diet, you may not lost weight simply because you are consuming products containing aspartame.

Clinically, I have had patients lose weight just from taking diet soft drinks out of their diet even if they replace them with regular ones.

But it isn’t all about weight gain.  Children whose mother’s drink artificially sweetened drinks during pregnancy, are more likely to have asthma and allergic rhinitis.  Also people who work in soft drink factories that have asthma can not go into the filling room containing artificial sweeteners.  Even those without asthma can develop asthmatic symptoms when they enter the filling room.

Artificial sweeteners are just that, artificial.  The body does not recognize them and so cannot digest them properly.  This can lead to the body holding on to fat and water in an attempt to dilute these unknown particles.

Make sure you always check labels especially on products that say they are low in sugar.  Aspartame can also be written as ‘951’ on an ingredients panel.

Although regulators have deemed it safe, there is enough evidence to the contrary that it doesn’t seem worth taking the chance.

951 Chemical

References:

Abdel-Salam OM, Salem NA, El-Shamarka ME, Hussein JS, Ahmed NA, El-Nagar ME, Studies on the effects of aspartame on memory and oxidative stress in brain of mice. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci 2012 Dec; 16(15):2092-101.

Abhilash M, Paul MV, Varghese MV, Nair RH, Effect of long term intake of aspartame on antioxidant defense status in liver. Food Chem. Toxicol. 2011 Jun; 49(6):1203-7.

Collison KS, Makhoul NJ, Zaidi MZ, Saleh SM, Andres B, Inglis A, Al-Rabiah R, Al-Mohanna FA, Gender dimorphism in aspartame-induced impairment of spatial cognition and insulin sensitivity. PLoS ONE 2012; 7(4):e31570.

Collison KS, Makhoul NJ, Zaidi MZ, Al-Rabiah R, Inglis A, Andres BL, Ubungen R, Shoukri M, Al-Mohanna FA, Interactive effects of neonatal exposure to monosodium glutamate and aspartame on glucose homeostasis. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2012; 9(1):58.

Feijó Fde M, Ballard CR, Foletto KC, Batista BA, Neves AM, Ribeiro MF, Bertoluci MC, Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels. Appetite 2013 Jan; 60(1):203-7.

Frincu-Mallos C, ENDO: Use of Artificial Sweeteners Linked to 2-Fold Increase in Diabetes. Medscape News. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/704432

Iyyaswamy A, Rathinasamy S, Effect of chronic exposure to aspartame on oxidative stress in the brain of albino rats. J. Biosci. 2012 Sep; 37(4):679-88.

Jang W, Jeoung NH, Cho KH, Modified apolipoprotein (apo) A-I by artificial sweetener causes severe premature cellular senescence and atherosclerosis with impairment of functional and structural properties of apoA-I in lipid-free and lipid-bound state. Mol. Cells 2011 May; 31(5):461-70.

Maslova E, Strom M, Olsen SF, Halldorsson TI, Consumption of Artificially-Sweetened Soft Drinks in Pregnancy and Risk of Child Asthma and Allergic Rhinitis. PLOS 2013 Feb 27. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057261

Szponar J, Górska A, Majewska M, Tchórz M, Drelich G, Methanol poisoning in a 61-year old male with recently diagnosed diabetes–a case report. Prz. Lek. 2011; 68(8):521-2.

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