Aspartame
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | September 4, 2001

If there is one food component we get asked about more than anything else, it's the artificial sweetener aspartame. Currently an email warning about the negative effects of aspartame is being circulated. In it, a woman claims to have addressed an international conference about aspartame and its health effects that include, among other things, symptoms of multiple sclerosis, ADD, migraines, and many more. Type the word "aspartame" into a search engine, and you can discover website after website dedicated to the evils of aspartame. There are not enough bytes on the internet to discuss why individuals and groups use such scare tactics, but is does raise two questions: Is aspartame safe, and should you use it?

Aspartame has been shown to be safe (1) and is approved by government and health organizations. The scare regarding methanol metabolism seems to go back to a study by Trocho (2) demonstrating the potential for formaldehyde to remain in the body instead of being eliminated. Another paper addressed the flaws in the Trocho studY (3). But more important than scientists criticizing methods or research design, the study hasn't been repeated in three years. Repetition of studies is crucial in science because of the potential for finding differences that are due to chance rather than a true effect.

The safety of aspartame revolves around its metabolism in the body. Aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. The methanol seems to get all the attention because it's metabolized by the body to formaldehyde, then formic acid, then to carbon dioxide and water. Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is poisonous in high quantities. In the amounts typically ingested from foods containing aspartame such as soft drinks and other sweets, the body can eliminate it with no harmful effects. It does so all the time when you eat fruits and vegetables or drink wine--other sources of methanol.

Can aspartame cause negative reactions in some people? Yes. There are thousands of chemical reactions that take place in the body every second. There may be biochemical differences in us that science hasn't even begun to discover--and the inability to metabolize aspartame and other foods may be some of them.

Should you use products that contain aspartame? As always, it's up to you. There are many foods that people are sensitive to and aspartame is one of them. Others are wheat, corn, milk, and even simple sugar. The important thing is to know yourself and how your body responds to the foods you eat. If you're going to eat processed foods--and most of us will because they're convenient and almost inescapable--then you must take the time to find which ingredients your body can and cannot use. How do you do that? Stop eating the food for a period of time and see if you feel better. If you do--avoid that food.

Use aspartame or not as you see fit, but don't fear it because of the ramblings of people who may be well intentioned, but have little else to do with their time. Everybody needs a hobby.

References:

  1. Leon AS, et al. Safety of long-term large doses of aspartame. Arch Intern Med 149(10):2318-2324. 1989.
  2. Trocho C, et al. Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo. Life Sci 63(5):337-349. 1998.
  3. Tephly TR. Comments on the purported generation of formaldehyde and adduct formation from the sweetener aspartame. Life Sci 65(13):PL157-PL160. 1999.
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