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Health Risks and Side Effects
of Aspartame Artificial Sweetener

Author:   Peter Sedesse MD

Food, sodas and other items that contain Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in brand names such as Equal and NutraSweet.  Aspartame is also used in many of the most popular diet sodas and other diet beverages such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi.  There are also many dessert foods as well as sugar-free gums that use Aspartame to reduce calorie of the food.  As with every chemical, and even most foods, there are chances of having a side effect or health problem from Aspartame, and those chances increase the more you consume.

Health benefits of Aspartame

When talking about an additive like Aspartame, it is important to weigh the side effects and the odds of having a side effect against the possible health benefits Aspartame provides.  Three of the leading causes of death are cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  Obesity is a leading contributor to each of those causes of death.  While there are certainly better options for weight loss, switching from full calorie to no calorie sweeteners like Aspartame is an appropriate step for those who are overweight.  This is not a guaranteed cure though, since studies have shown that many people who switch to Aspartame diet sodas increase the calories they obtain from other sources.

The great Aspartame internet hoax and conspiracy

Aspartame became available to use in the USA about the same time the Internet became mainstream. Because of some misinformation and misuse of scientific data, this lead to an early internet hoax and conspiracy campaign against Aspartame.  This campaign is believed to have been started by the sugar industry, and unfortunately, some of the bad science and data is still circulated to this day.  The facts of Aspartame safety are easily obtained by peer-reviewed scientific studies, but at times this research has been twisted.   We will begin by discussing the real side effects of Aspartame, and then there will be a few comments regarding the two major pieces of misinformation regarding Aspartame safety that is still out there.

Side effects of Aspartame artificial sweetener

The most commonly reported side effects of Aspartame are mainly gastrointestinal issues like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting in extreme cases.  There are other side effects that generally involve the loss of calories of people who switch to a non-caloric soda after drinking high calorie sodas for a long time.  These symptoms of Aspartame use include dizziness, fatigue, weakness, depression, headaches and memory loss.  These symptoms are similar to those felt by people starting a crash diet.  The body is not prepared for the sudden decrease in calories.  Abdominal pains and cramping are other side effects that are reported, and are attributed to the fact that Aspartame is not easily absorbed into the body and can irritate the intestines as it passes through the body.

False side effects and symptoms of Aspartame artificial sweetener

Aside from these side effects and symptoms of Aspartame use  that are similar to many other additives or medicines, there are two false side effects that need to be discussed that were used extensively in the internet hoax, they are brain tumors and methanol poisoning.  Without a good understanding of product testing and basic chemistry, these two issues may sound serious, but they are not.

Aspartame has been claimed to produce brain tumors.  This claim is a misinterpretation of testing done on every product.  New products undergo many tests before they are allowed onto the market.  One of those tests is referred to as mortality testing.  If you are an animal rights activist, stop reading.  This test is performed on a few hundred animals, usually rats.  The test is simple, you force the animal to ingest large amounts of the product until they die.  If they don´t die, you give them larger doses.  The purpose of the test is to determine at what level death will occur, and then after autopsies, the cause of death is determined.  This test is done on every food, and always results in the death of the test subjects.  In the case of Aspartame, the leading cause of death was starvation.  Basically so much aspartame was given that the intestines could not absorb other nutrients necessary for life.  The second leading cause of death were brain tumors.  This test is the root of all the rumors regarding Aspartame and brain tumors.  The fact is that no brain tumors in humans has every been attributed to Aspartame. The amount of aspartame ingested by the rats that caused the brain tumors is nearly impossible for humans to ingest even if they were eating the raw product from a bowl.

The second myth regarding Aspartame involves methanol and embalming fluid.  In a laboratory, Aspartame can be converted to many of the same substances used in embalming fluid. The fact is the other chemicals needed to achieve this process are not found in the body.  The other part of this is the rumor that Aspartame can turn into methanol.  This is correct, but so can every fruit and vegetable and most other things we eat. Our bodies are very capable of dealing with the methanol that is produced when we eat food, whether it comes from Aspartame or an apple.   

Aspartame health risks during pregnancy

There have been no studies that have shown any dangerous side effects of using Aspartame during pregnancy.  But like with all food additives or chemicals, it is safer to avoid them completely.  It is one of the realities of research ethics, it is just very difficult to do large scale testing on pregnant women.

Despite most of the more serious claims regarding Aspartame being false, there are still plenty of serious side effects that can occur from Aspartame.  They include many digestive issues, or issues related to low energy levels.  Aspartame has been commercially available in the USA for almost 30 years and  claims of brain tumors or methanol poisoning have never been reported regarding its use.  The health benefits of Aspartame, in most cases, outweigh any health concerns regarding moderate use.  But as with all food additives, moderation is the key with Aspartame.

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