Artificial sweeteners can be a sticky topic. Challengers claim they have side effects such as migraines and seizures, increase risk of cancer and obesity, and cause a myriad of other things – while defenders staunchly deny all of it and claim that sweeteners such as Aspartame, Splenda, Saccharin and more are perfectly safe to consume. 

No artificial sweetener has seen more of this battle than Aspartame – commonly referred to by the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. Pepsi-Cola recently made headlines by stating that it plans to drop aspartame from its’ products in favor of a Splenda-based sweetener blend. They were careful not to suggest that public fears were warranted – only that they were responding to consumer demand.

The argument over aspartame isn’t just big companies vs. little people, either. Doctors, nutritionists and the medical community at large have weighed in on the topic and taken positions on both sides of the debate. 

Who and what, then, are you to believe? Are they safe? Do they help you lose weight? Or is it all a big lie?  Is there such a thing as aspartame poisoning? To get to the bottom of this, let’s take a look at what exactly Aspartame is, where it came from, and how it works.

Aspartame was discovered entirely by accident.

The year was 1965, and chemist James M. Schlatter was researching and testing drugs to treat ulcers. Aspartame was an intermediate chemical used in the production of a tetrapeptide used in evaluating drug effectiveness, and in the course of producing it one day he inadvertently got some on his fingers. Later that day licked one of those fingers while leafing through a book, and the sweetener later to be widely known as NutraSweet was born.

In 1981 the FDA approved aspartame for use in dry goods, and in 1983 for use in soft drinks. In 1996 all restrictions were lifted, allowing its’ use in any manner and in any food. 

Aspartame is a cohesion of naturally occurring amino acids.

There are three primary components of the Aspartame molecule – L-aspartic acid, L-phenylalanine, and a single carbon atom. When ingested and passed into the small intestine, it is broken apart back into these elements.

Aspartic Acid is an amino acid, which is an element used in the creation of proteins.  It naturally occurs both in the body, and in a variety of food sources. Typically it can be found in beef, eggs, sprouting seeds, avocado, peanuts, asparagus, salmon and a variety of other foods. It plays a role in hormone production and nervous system function.

Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning that it plays a role in the human body but must be derived from food sources. It is commonly found in meat, dairy and eggs. Like aspartic acid, it is (aside from rare cases) considered harmless in the human system.

Carbon, the final element in the mix, is a fundamental building block of our existence. When digested, it splits off on its’ own to create a single Methanol molecule. This is where the story gets a little more interesting. Methanol after all, is also known as Wood Alcohol, and is used in rocket fuel among other things. Better still, to process it the body forms Formaldehyde; a rather famous - and carcinogenic - embalming chemical.

Drinking formaldehyde doesn’t seem too brilliant.

Yes, this is where all those safety concerns start to sound like they’re right on the money. And if I left it at that, you would walk away convinced that drinking anti-freeze (which - fun fact - also contains methanol) is better for you than a Diet Coke.

Alas, there’s more to the story. Methanol is also found in fruits and vegetables. A serving of tomato juice for example, provides roughly 6 times more methanol than a diet soda of the same size. The amount of aspartame you’d have to consume in order to risk methanol-related health issues would be prohibitive. 

Aspartic acid and phenylalanine, likewise, can be easily ingested at 6 to 13 times exposure by simply drinking a glass of milk. All three components are eliminated from the body, so there is no toxic build-up to be concerned about. Generally speaking, the ingredients of Aspartame are pretty harmless at the kinds of levels we consume.

What about the rats that got cancer? What about the studies?

To be sure, a whole host of studies have been done on the effects of aspartame. These studies have been performed both on humans, and on lab animals including rats. Most of these studies proved inconclusive regarding the relationship between aspartame and serious diseases. 

A few of them did not. In one of these studies, rats fed staggering amounts of aspartame were found to have a higher rate of bladder cancer than the control group. Studies on humans produced no such results. 

Muddying the waters a bit further is the way aspartame got FDA approved to begin with.

In 1974 the FDA approved aspartame for human consumption – only to then discover that the studies and tests performed to ensure its’ safety were poorly performed and rife with potential errors, omissions and points of concern. They promptly revoked the approval in 1975 and did not ultimately re-approve aspartame until 1981 after further testing and review had been done. 

Where there’s smoke?

Aspartame has a murky past. Add to this the fact that it is a highly profitable substance – as is tobacco for instance – and many see cause for concern. 

The evidence to substantiate these fears however, is largely missing. Additionally it is worth mention that research studies very frequently turn up false positives or unimportant statistical noise. A recent hoax that eating chocolate causes weight loss has shed some light in that direction.

For all the testing we have done, there are also some aspects of aspartame’s effect on the body that we have not entirely cleared up. 

For example, the amino aspartic acid is known to be a neurotransmitter, playing a role in brain function. Simultaneously, there are many who claim that aspartame intake triggers migraines – a type of headache known to manifest from within the cerebellum of the brain itself. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not. 

Many people have personally (and publicly) documented their own negative side-effects from ingesting aspartame. In one case I know of personally, intake of aspartame directly worsens the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome for a few hours after use. Most cases like these are unlikely to be the topic of any intense research scrutiny any time soon – so your opinion is as good as mine. Take it how you will.

Safe doesn’t mean good

By all documented scientific accounts, aspartame stacks up as an acceptably (within norms) safe product for human consumption… But the same could be said of Twinkies, Pork Rinds and Whiskey. The real question you have to ask yourself is whether or not it is a GOOD product for consumption.

Ask yourself this question – which is healthier to consume, soda pop or water? 

How about another – how will your taste buds ever come to appreciate the inherent sweetness of fruits and vegetables if you keep eating things that are orders of magnitude sweeter?

Regarding weight loss, try this on for size: There is a recent study out there showing that mice who ate aspartame were more likely to GAIN weight than the control group. But do you really need to rely on rodents to see that diet beverages are a highly imperfect solution? 

Real weight loss and real health benefits

There is another product on the market right now that performs the same job as aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. It is the nicotine vaporizer.

They’re all the rage right now – get your nicotine fix without the smoke. They’re even being produced to look and feel a lot like real cigarettes. It’s an interesting development, and the jury is still out on whether or not there is any health advantage between the two.

The real question is – will using a vaporizer help you quit smoking, or simply extend your bad habit into a different form?

That, my friends, is the problem with artificial sweeteners. And why you should lose the diet soda entirely in favor of something more healthy and wholesome.