Aspartame sweetener side effects, safety, risk and danger - Natural alternatives to this artificial sweetener
Feb 25 2014 by
Ray Sahelian, M.D.

Aspartame is found in thousands of products -- sodas, chewing gum, dairy products and even many medicines. NutraSweet and Equal are popular brands. Aspartame is consumed by over 200 million people around the world and is found in more than 6,000 products. Aspartame is found in Equal, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Diet Snapple, Sugar Free Kool-Aid, Breyers Light, General Foods Sugar-Free International Coffees, among other foods.
   Aspartame sweetener, developed by the G.D. Searle company, is used in more than 6,000 food products worldwide. Merisant Co is another leading aspartame company, with the brands Equal, Canderel and NutraSweet. Aspartame was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1981. There is a natural herb called stevia which has no calories and is as sweet as artificial sweeteners. It is FDA approved and is safe to use. You can find more information on stevia. Three or four drops of this liquid can sweeten a cup of tea or coffee. Other options are packets, powder, and chewing gum. This product is safe to use by diabetics and children and is a wonderful way to make tasty lemonade without any additional calories. Aspartame is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid amino acid and phenylalanine, as the methyl ester. Aspartame is composed of phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%) and methanol (10%).

Aspartame is a methyl ester of a dipeptide (two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine; and methanol) used as a synthetic nonnutritive sweetener in over 90 countries worldwide in over 6000 products. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has a caloric value similar to sugar (4 kcal/g), but the amounts used are small enough to consider aspartame essentially free of calories. Brand names include NutraSweet and Equal. Aspartame was first approved by the FDA in 1981 as a tabletop sweetener, and for use in gum, breakfast cereal, and other dry products. The use of aspartame was expanded to sodas in 1983, and then to use as a general-purpose sweetener in all foods and drinks in 1996. For information on stevia sweetener.

Aspartame harm to the brain, side effects and safety
Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2014 Feb 17. Cognitive and biochemical effects of monosodium glutamate and aspartame, administered individually and in combination in male albino mice. The present study was designed to investigate in vivo effects of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame individually and in combination on the cognitive behaviour and biochemical parameters like neurotransmitters and oxidative stress indices in brain tissue. This study showed that individually they did little harm, but together these food additives caused toxic reactions.

Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain.
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008.
The use of the artificial sweetener, aspartame, has long been contemplated and studied by various researchers, and people are concerned about its negative effects. Aspartame is composed of phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. Phenylalanine plays an important role in neurotransmitter regulation, whereas aspartic acid is also thought to play a role as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Glutamate, asparagines and glutamine are formed from their precursor, aspartic acid. Methanol, which forms 10% of the broken down product, is converted in the body to formate, which can either be excreted or can give rise to formaldehyde, diketopiperazine (a carcinogen) and a number of other highly toxic derivatives. Previously, it has been reported that consumption of aspartame could cause neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals. Headaches, insomnia and seizures are also some of the neurological effects that have been encountered, and these may be accredited to changes in regional brain concentrations of catecholamines, which include norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. The aim of this study was to discuss the direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, and we propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the pathogenesis of certain mental disorders and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning.

Aspartame industry funded study disputes aspartame risks and dangers
A panel of American, British and Dutch industry members, having reviewed published research over the past 2 decades, has concluded that aspartame does not cause cancer, seizures, neurological damage or learning problems, or contributes to obesity. The panel did conclude that some people might get headaches after consuming aspartame. The panel's work was funded by Japanese food and seasonings giant Ajinomoto Co , a maker of aspartame. The reviewers rejected the findings of a study published in June 2006 by Italian scientists that showed aspartame might cause leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer in rats. Journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology, Sept 2007.
   Comments: I'm always cautious in believing opinions that come out from industry sponsored studies.

In a 2006, memo, the FDA reports:
"Before approval, the FDA reviewed numerous studies showing that aspartame did not cause cancer or other adverse effects in laboratory animals. "This included three studies in which rats were fed aspartame in proportions more than 100 times higher than humans would likely consume. In the mid-1990s, a researcher raised concerns that a rise in brain cancer incidence in the United States was linked to aspartame use. According to FDA experts, there is no scientific evidence supporting a link between aspartame and any type of cancer. The National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also conducted aspartame studies in mice and found no cancer link. In 2005, the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) published new findings of a long-term feeding study on aspartame in rats. ERF scientists concluded that aspartame causes leukemia and lymphoma and that current uses of aspartame should be reevaluated. After reviewing the study data, however, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a statement in May 2006 that said the ERF's conclusion was not supported by the data. After learning of the ERF study results, the FDA requested the study data and received a portion of the data in February 2006. The FDA will announce its conclusions after completing its review. "At this time, our position that aspartame is safe is based on the large body of information previously reviewed," Tarantino says. "Our conclusions are based on a detailed review of more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies on safety." When ingested, aspartame is converted in the body to methanol and two amino acids--aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Tarantino says, "These substances are produced in much greater amounts in other common foods." Because of the phenylalanine component, aspartame does carry a risk for people with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria. People who have this disorder should avoid or restrict aspartame use because of their body's difficulty in metabolizing phenylalanine. Its use can cause phenylalanine to build up in the blood at higher levels than normal. The aspartame regulation requires that a statement be placed on the label of all products containing aspartame specifically to alert phenylketonurics of the presence of phenylalanine."
     Dr. Sahelian comments: I wonder how quickly FDA would have acted if it had been found that stevia caused an increased risk of cancer in rodents.

The Aspartame Controversy - Whom do you trust?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has garnered a great deal of controversy since an Italian study in rats indicated that aspartame consumption could increase the risk for lymphoma and leukemia. The actual aspartame study is detailed below. However, this study was disputed in May of 2006 by a panel of scientists advising the European Food Safety Authority. The new review found that the number of tumors did not increase in relation to the dosage of aspartame fed to the animals. Many of the rats in the study had suffered from chronic respiratory disease and that was the most likely cause of the tumors, the panel said. The European panel said its assessment should put the lid on years of debate over the aspartame sweetener found in thousands of products, including diet sodas, chewing gum, dairy products and even many medicines. The food safety scientists were also satisfied with the current European level set for the safe daily consumption of aspartame -- a maximum of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight -- saying that the limit is well above what people consume normally.
     The Italian researchers who conducted the rat study insisted that their initial findings were correct and pledged to continue studying the subject. Dr. Morando Soffritti, who led the study for the Bologna-based European Ramazzini Foundation, also assailed a U.S. study that concluded aspartame was safe, saying that it was an example of how "some researchers are ready to put themselves at the disposal of the industry" that produces sweeteners. He contended the U.S. research didn't distinguish between aspartame and other sweetener use and did not measure lifetime sweetener use. History is full of examples where animal studies showed benefit or harm from a substance that later proved not true of people. But Soffritti insists that animal studies are better when it comes to aspartame because it's nearly impossible to find a comparison group of people who don't use the sweetener at all. "How do you do a study on humans when aspartame is used in 6,000 products? How do you find a population that has never used it?" he asked.
     The rodents were divided into seven groups and fed different doses of the aspartame sweetener over their natural life span. Some of the rats, especially females, developed more lymphomas and leukemias than those not fed aspartame. But the European food safety panel faulted the colony of rats used in the study, saying they had respiratory problems. These and other factors could have affected the observations, the panel said.
     The U.S. findings on aspartame are based on lengthy food questionnaires sent in the 1990s to 340,045 men and 226,945 women, ages 50 to 69. They were participating in a research project by the National Institutes of Health and AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. Based on those food surveys, filled out in 1995 and 1996, researchers with the National Cancer Institute calculated how much aspartame the participants consumed, especially from sodas or from adding the sweetener to coffee or tea. No connection was found between aspartame consumption and the type or number of tumors developed in later years.

My comments
Although there is little reason to avoid aspartame completely, it is a good idea to reduce intake of diet sodas, chewing gum, along with NutraSweet and Equal. Just use less artificial sweeteners and consider using stevia and other natural as a partial substitute. I don't know enough about the European Food Safety Authority to know whether they are influenced by the major corporations, but their vehement attempt to discredit the rat study makes me suspect that sometimes fishy is going on.

An Italian study in rats by the Ramazzini Foundation indicates aspartame may be dangerous. Aspartame was given to 8-week-old rats. The treatment lasted until natural death. The results showed that aspartame increased the risk of lymphoma, leukemia, urinary tumors, and tumors of certain nerves. The researchers state, "The results of this experiment indicate that aspartame is a carcinogenic agent (cancer causing), even at a daily dose of 20 mg/kg body weight, much less than the current acceptable daily intake. On the basis of these results, a reevaluation of the present guidelines on the use and consumption of aspartame is urgent and cannot be delayed." "Long-Term Carcinogenicity Bioassays to Evaluate the Potential Biological Effects, in Particular Carcinogenic, of Aspartame Administered in Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats," conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) of Bologna, Italy.

"FDA is issuing this statement in response to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) press release on its review of the long-term carcinogenicity study of aspartame conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF).
     Aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener, is composed primarily of two common amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Each of these is also a building block for conventional foods such as protein and natural flavor molecules.
     In 2005, ERF published new findings of a long-term feeding study on aspartame conducted in rats. Scientists from ERF concluded from their study that aspartame causes cancer and that current uses and consumption of the sweetener should be re-evaluated.
     EFSA's review of ERF's study concluded, among other things, that on the basis of all evidence currently available to EFSA:

* ERF's conclusion that aspartame is a carcinogen is not supported by the data; and
* EFSA sees no need to further review its earlier scientific opinion on the safety of aspartame or to revise the Acceptable Daily Intake.

     Upon learning of the ERF study results, FDA requested the study data from ERF to evaluate the findings. On February 28, 2006, the agency received a portion of the data requested. We are actively reviewing the data provided by ERF and will complete our review of those data as soon as possible. When FDA completes its review of the ERF study data, it will announce its conclusion.
     Since it was first approved for use in the United States, the safety of aspartame has been questioned by some. To date, however, the agency has not been presented with scientific information that would support a change in our conclusions about the safety of aspartame. Those conclusions are based on a detailed review of a large body of information, including more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies regarding the sweetener's safety. "
 

My Comments: I wonder what the governmental authorities would have said if a study was done on stevia, or another natural sweetener, and the results showed the same findings of increased cancer risk. I will let you, the reader, ponder on this.

Potential short term aspartame side effects
The list of aspartame side effects reported by consumers is quite long, but headaches and dizziness from excessive use appears to be common.

Research
Aspartame induced Sjogren syndrome. South Med J. 2006.

First experimental demonstration of the multipotential carcinogenic effects of aspartame administered in the feed to Sprague-Dawley rats.
Environ Health Perspect. 2006.
The Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the European Ramazzini Foundation has conducted a long-term bioassay on aspartame, a widely used artificial sweetener. Aspartame was administered with feed to 8-week-old Sprague-Dawley rats at concentrations of 100,000, 50,000, 10,000, 2,000, 400, 80, or 0 ppm. The treatment lasted until natural death, at which time all deceased animals underwent complete necropsy. Histopathologic evaluation of all pathologic lesions and of all organs and tissues collected was routinely performed on each animal of all experimental groups. The results of the study show for the first time that aspartame, causes a) an increased incidence of malignant-tumor-bearing animals b) an increase in lymphomas and leukemias c) a statistically significant increased incidence of transitional cell carcinomas of the renal pelvis and ureter and their precursors; and d) an increased incidence of malignant schwannomas of peripheral nerves. The results of this mega-experiment indicate that aspartame is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, even at a daily dose of 20 mg/kg body weight, much less than the current acceptable daily intake. On the basis of these results, a reevaluation of the present guidelines on the use and consumption of aspartame is urgent and cannot be delayed.

The effect of aspartame metabolites on human erythrocyte membrane acetylcholinesterase activity.
Pharmacol Res. 2006. Department of Experimental Physiology, Medical School, University of Athens, Greece.
Studies have implicated aspartame with neurological problems. The aim of this study was to evaluate acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity in human erythrocyte membranes after incubation with the sum of aspartame metabolites, phenylalanine (Phe), methanol (met) and aspartic acid (aspt), or with each one separately. Erythrocyte membranes were obtained from 12 healthy individuals and were incubated with aspartame hydrolysis products for 1 h at 37 degrees C. Conclusion: Low concentrations of aspartame metabolites had no effect on the membrane enzyme activity, whereas high or toxic concentrations partially or remarkably decreased the membrane AChE activity, respectively. Additionally, neurological symptoms, including learning and memory processes, may be related to the high or toxic concentrations of the sweetener metabolites.

Chronic aspartame affects T-maze performance, brain cholinergic receptors and Na+,K+-ATPase in rats.
Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2004.  Department of Pharmacology, Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
This study demonstrated that chronic aspartame consumption in rats can lead to altered T-maze performance and increased muscarinic cholinergic receptor densities in certain brain regions. Control and treated rats were trained in a T-maze to a particular side and then periodically tested to see how well they retained the learned response. Rats that had received aspartame (250 mg/kg/day) in the drinking water for 3 or 4 months showed a significant increase in time to reach the reward in the T-maze, suggesting a possible effect on memory due to the artificial sweetener. It can be concluded from these data that long-term consumption of aspartame can affect T-maze performance in rats and alter receptor densities or enzymes in brain.

Emails
Q. Thank you for your continued insight and open, honest approach to supplements, to life. I am pleased to see you are doing well and continuing your role as an intelligent voice of wisdom in this increasingly insane world. Specifically, I can hardly tell you how emphatically I agree with your views on aspartame in the May 15, 2006 issue of your supplement research update newsletter. Hell yes, be aware… damn right choose wisely. And be a purist if you’re compelled to but as soon as you get some effective medication (pharmaceutical or non) we shall be here living maximum freedom at A- !!!  All the Best to You!

Q. I enjoy getting your health bulletin and product spotlights, especially since you are focused on a more holistic approach to living which seems in harmony with nature and is a lifestyle I follow strongly. I have tried a few of the products you have developed and they seem like quality products. I am a holistic therapist, and beside using various natural healing modalities have studied nutrition and preventive medicine, and wanted to send you another article I read last year that posts Aspartame as a serious health threat, as you mentioned it is ok to use this in moderation which I am questioning.
    To quote Dr Robert from Florida who did the research "I have described many serious side effects and medical/public health hazards attributable to aspartame products. The neurological, psychological, eye, endocrine, metabolic and pediatric ravages in my data base of over 1,200 aspartame reactors, comprised of both patients and correspondents, are impressive. Additionally, it is my increasing conviction that aspartame products can cause, aggravate or accelerate migraine, seizures, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and its complications, Alzheimer's disease, and even brain tumors. The clinical and scientific basis for these assertions have been detailed previously. There is also a major issue with addiction to this product and strong withdrawal symptoms have been noticed." Hope this helps you spread the truth about this horrific sweetener...      I also have not seen you talk about Microwaving food which kills enzymes and makes foods lose nutritional value.
   A. Thank you for sending this. We have so many things we want to share with our readers, we'll get to microwaving some day. As to aspartame, our role as we see it here is to inform people about the science, and each person has a choice how pure they wish to be with their diet.

Q. About your recent article on Aspartame: If aspartame is really as bad as they say, why hasn't it been removed from the market? My doctor told me that Splenda (sugar substitute) is somewhat better than Equal (with aspartame), but that the difference isn't enough to worry about. He said that if I took them, for example, for 20 years, then I might notice a difference. Do you think Splenda is safe to use? Any help on this would be greatly appreciated! Please note that it helps me a lot to have a sugar substitute; this is one thing that has helped to control my weight, and even lose some weight.
   A. I have not studied Splenda enough to have an opinion on its safety. At this time I do not think high amounts of aspartame are safe and I don't know why the governmental authorities are not saying much about the recent research that showed great safety concerns with aspartame.

Q. I am a doctor and found the article on green tea extract in coke quite scary, not because of the excess green tea but because of the other chemical in the coke, aspartame for instance. I think it is a disgrace and a bit of a abomination that the large companies are seeking to mislead the consumers on a grand scale by using a health substance as a smoke screen and a sales tool. Thank you for the newsletter updates.

Q. Can resveratrol, since it is a strong antioxidant, reverse any damage from aspartame?
   A. I have not seen any research combining the two, so it is difficult to say.

Q. If you don't have PKU, is there in real danger in consuming aspartame sweetener?
   A. Small amounts of aspartame sweetener consumption should not cause any health issues.

I am a student at Centennial High School in Corona, California. I am currently taking a Chemistry class and I'm writing a research paper on the positive and negative effects of aspartame and other artificial sugars. I was hoping you would be able to answer a few of my questions: Although artificial sugars have very little to no calories, does it give the body energy or any kind of sugar rush? Can you explain why these artificial sugars help people with diabetes? In a journal I read that artificial sugars can affect human metabolism because the body doesn't recognize sweet taste with energy. If the sugar consumption is stopped how will the body react? If the sugars are bad for our bodies, why do you think the FDA approves and promotes the sugars?
    Artificial sweeteners do not give energy, nor do they give a sugar rush. Diabetics can use artificial sweeteners in order to reduce their sugar and caloric intake so that their blood sugar does not rise as high. Some studies show that people will make up for using artificial sweeteners by eating other foods that have sugar to satisfy their cravings. The FDA does not approve or promote sugars, they do approve artificial sweeteners after they have reviewed the safety studies although politics can be involved in their decision making process. Stevia is a natural no calorie sweetener and an excellent alternative to artificial sweeteners.

My question is about aspartamine which is listed as an amino acid in a when protein product I bought. I called the company and was told that is is in fact an amino acid. On the internet search, there is information that aspartamine and aspartame are the same thing. So my question is, what is the truth about aspartamine?
    I am not familiar with this substance.

Thanks for your website that offers information based on evidence and critical thinking! I am interested in whether or not possible side effects from aspartame use are reversible when aspartame use is discontinued. I have heard vague rumors about the irreversibility of effects on the brain of excessive or prolonged aspartame use (e.g., statements about toxic metabolites of aspartame accumulating in the brain and other vague statements), but I have not found any detailed explanation of such assertions. Do you have any experience or knowledge of research about whether or not adverse effects of this artificial sweetener use are reversible after use is discontinued?
    I have not seen such studies, but my best guess would be that most, if not all, alleged adverse effects would be reversible.