The Trouble with Sweet: Part 4: The “Blue Stuff” Aspartame

December 08, 2007

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part 4: The “Blue Stuff” Aspartame 

 Competency # 11 Sugar                                   Reference:  Sweet Deceptionby Dr. Mercola 

We have all been assaulted by internet mail every couple months or so that circulate around stating that aspartame is dangerous.  I have routinely deleted them, thinking that it’s all just hysteria.   I get more questions about aspartame than any other sweetener.  Many of us have switched to “The Yellow Stuff” without knowing why.  I’m trying to figure out what’s the truth about aspartame.  

Here is what I have found out. Aspartame is a combination of phenylalanine, an amino acid, aspartic acid, part of an amino acid, and methanol (alcohol).  It was discovered by accident by a researcher trying to figure out treatments for peptic ulcer disease.  A spill on the counter top, a lick of the fingers, and aspartame was born.  The two amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and ostensibly are part of normal metabolism.  

Sounds natural, doesn’t it? Some very rare individuals have a disease whereby they cannot digest phenylalanine.  They get toxic easily, hence the warning label.  We normally eat them as part of proteins.  Everything’s just peachy so far. Here’s the hitch.  When you eat proteins, you get those two ingredients in trace amounts and in balance with a bunch of the other amino acids in the protein.  

What is unique about these two is that both phenylalanine and aspartic acid are neurotransmitters in your brain.  They are the building blocks for the chemical signals your brain cells put out to function.    Another unique feature is that the two never ever appear in nature as a combination, adjacent to each other in a protein.  They have usually spread apart from each other, separated by many other more common amino acids.  So your body doesn’t have a means of accepting and metabolizing the two when they are directly linked.  

And then there is the methanol.  That’s called wood alcohol.  It’s a poison.  People who drink it come to the ER in seizures.  The EPA says 7.8 mg a day of methanol is safe.  Diet soda contains 16 mgs.   Methanol, in your body, is turned into formaldehyde, AKA dry cleaning solvent or cadaver preservative.  Sounds like CSI. 

 Back to brain chemistry and neurotransmission.  Aspartic acid is part of a major excitatory neurotransmission pathway.   Dr. John Olney showed that MSG raised blood glutamate in the brain, and resulted in danger to newborn animals.  The field of “excito-neurotoxicity” was born.  It’s Dr. Olney that published articles in the literature showing that the rates of brain cancer have started going up faster than other cancers after the introduction of aspartame.  One FDA trial in 320 rats indeed showed that 12 of them got brain cancer.  

Then there is research published by Dr. Morando Soffritti from Bologna, Italy showing that rats get high rates of lymphomas when they eat aspartame equivalent to 4 diet sodas a day. So the question remains, what happens with the Delaney Clause of the Food and Drug act?  Remember, that’s the clause that states a substance should be banned if there is ANY toxicity in animals.  How about humans? Well, Dr. Walton of Northeastern Ohio University tried to do a study on depressed folks and the use of aspartame.  His institutional review board stopped the study because 13 of his patients dropped out for severe reactions to the aspartame.  And interestingly enough, the NeutraSweet Company refused to cooperate in the study and made him buy his sweetener on the open market. 

 Do you want more?  Did you know that Air Force’s Flying Safety magazine warns pilots shouldn’t use it if they want to fly: they might get “flicker vertigo” or risk of seizures.  When a hotline got set up to report acute reactions to aspartame, over 600 pilots reported suffering some symptom or another, up to and including a grand mal seizure in a cockpit. And for a final coup.  An experiment for yourself at home.  Set out some aspartame the next time you see an ant colony creeping into your house.  You will find it to be one of the better ant killers around.  Apparently the Delaney clause does not cover ants.  But, in 1988 over 80% of the calls made to the FDA for complaints about food were about adverse reactions to aspartame-containing products.  

The question arises, why no action? Finally, there is Neotame.  It’s aspartame with a slight chemical twist on it to make it sweeter and get a different name.  But its basic backbone is aspartame.  It’s new on the market and mixed in with other sweeteners.  That’s the catch.  We are now mixing our sweeteners so that no one can get the blame when there are side effects.  Shall we start again with Neotame?  This column just can’t contain all the data. 

 WWW:  What will work for me.  As a long time consumer of many pounds of aspartame, I am so longer sanguine.  This has been a very sad journey for me.  I regret the bland advice I have given to all the people who have asked me is aspartame is safe.  I’m not sure we have definitive human safety studies.  But it’s banned from my house.  The blue packets are gone.  I am a scientist.  I want credible science and what I’ve found is that every independent effort by non-industry employed scientists have been ignored or subverted.  What I’ve learned makes me sad about the state of our nation’s food watchdogs.  The problem is my sweet tooth.  It’s my demand for it that makes it available and gives power to the industry that supplies it.  Well, my dollars aren’t going there anymore.  And it’s back to reading labels.  Chewing gum, soda, …….. Next week, the yellow packet. 

 (Now, if you are really into intrigue about behind-the-scenes politics, you will find that our recent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld swore to get aspartame approved for public use.  He was then president of a certain, not to be mentioned chemical company making the stuff.  Within weeks of Reagan getting elected, aspartame was approved.  Apparently, Donald Rumsfeld has gotten us into more messes than he cares to take credit for). 

 ** Latter Correction for this Newsletter:  I was reminded by email that I had made an error.  I quoted that aspartame put two amino acids together that do not occur together in nature.  That is apparently NOT correct.  They do appear in nature, and in some cases frequently.  Pardon the error.  That’s the wonderful thing about the internet: you can get lots of folks to help steer the ship.  

The column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)