Is Aspartame Dangerous?

Sand TimerLately, it seems, a lot of light has been shed on the connection between allergies, diseases, and other health conditions and the toxicity of foods laden with chemicals and pesticides, as well as those that are made from unnatural sources.  Aspartame is one that gets a lot of attention.  A simple search on reactions to this substance will come up with thousands of accounts of symptoms ranging from swelling and headaches, to seizures, and even cancer.  Why, then, is aspartame available and so widely used?  The FDA granted aspartame its GRAS standard (generally regarded as safe) over 30 years ago, and companies that use this substance will claim that there is "no conclusive evidence to indicate that aspartame is unsafe".  So does this mean that it's safe, or should I still be concerned?  What is conclusive is that there is no shortage of advocates on either side of the issue.

Some studies have been conducted to determine the safety or danger of aspartame, most notably one performed in Europe in 2007 that linked the substance with cancer.  But, in the U.S., organizations that have political and financial interests in the availability of aspartame have successfully rebuffed this and other studies by identifying methodology faults, and little has been done to further demonstrate its safety to the public.

Considering that aspartame is estimated to have 180 times the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar), very little of it is needed to sweeten our foods, drinks, and medicines, which means a lower cost of goods for manufacturers.  Plus, in the U.S., as diabetes is on the rise, more and more people are consuming foods that are artificially sweetened because their bodies can not properly process sugar.  So, again, there's a huge financial interest out there in keeping one of the cheapest and most widely available sweeteners on the market.  And since there's no "conclusive evidence" to say that it's unsafe, why not, right?

Well, the question still remains, why does aspartame seem to cause such a terrible reaction in some people?  Phenylketonurics react severely to the ingestion of phenylalanine, which is one of the major components of aspartame.  But what about the reactions that occur in people who do not carry this rare hereditary disorder?  And for those of us who do not exhibit any obvious reaction, is there some unknown harmful effect that occurs when we ingest this product?  Unfortunately, the answers we seek are unclear.  So, in the absence of hard-core facts and information that is free of propaganda and special-interest influence, consider the following personal account from a dear friend of mine who for a long time experienced a reaction after eating foods containing aspartame.

"I had my first episode when I was about 12 or 13.  My parents refer to it as my “thousand dollar headache” because of the emergency visit that never did amount to anything conclusive.  Anyway, my dad came in to see if I was alright when he heard me up vomiting in the middle of the night.  I wanted to tell him to hold my hair back, but what came out instead was, “Brace my ears.”  He and I were both confused.  My mum sat up in bed and got in on the action.  Laughing at first because she thought I was sleep-talking, she soon sobered up when she realized I wasn’t.</em>

<em>I’ll tell you, that has to be one of the worst feelings – to know what you’re thinking but to hear something other than your intended words come out of your mouth – most unsettling.  Symptoms varied from time to time, but all in all I would experience numbness down the right side of my body, a thick swollen tongue, splitting headache, nausea, discombobulated thinking, garbled/ incorrect speech, and always my prodromal symptom, the way I knew it was coming on, was a numb tingling in my hand(s).  Symptoms would mimic those of a stroke or multiple sclerosis.</em>

<em>Thankfully, I don’t get these “complex migraines” anymore.  After nearly a decade and various MRI/ CAT scans which never showed anything amiss, I was finally able to pinpoint the trigger on my own: aspartame.  Once I did, I told my siblings and the migraines they suffered, though never as extreme as mine, also subsided.  Now we stay far away from that poison.  This experience has also helped me reason that pure, whole foods are always better than manufactured chemical compositions.  For that, I’m thankful."

This story certainly makes me pause when I turn to reach for a Diet Coke.  It's not difficult to avoid aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners, if processed foods are not a significant portion of your diet -- not many of us purchase unnatural ingredients for our day-to-day cooking.  NutraSweet (branded aspartame), however, is often used when sweetening drinks, such as coffee and tea.  In fact, it sits side-by-side with its natural counterpart (sucrose) in restaurants, office coffee stations, and even in our homes.  But is there really an advantage to using a no-calorie sweetener?  One teaspoon of regular sugar contains just 15 calories, which is less than 1% of the recommended calorie intake for most adults.  Plus, is the taste any better?  Most people would agree that the tastes of sugar and honey are far superior to that of their artificially produced imitations.

I realize that I may not (yet) be able to scientifically conclude whether or not consuming aspartame and other artificial additives poses a significant risk to my body.  But, then again, why take the chance?

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