Aspartame: Five Surprising Facts You Never Knew About This Chemical Sweetener


You’ve surely heard of aspartame. In our restaurants and in our homes, it’s a controversial ingredient that some shrug their shoulders at, others angrily defend, and many wholeheartedly oppose.

In America’s war against obesity, consumers have become more than just health conscious; they are demanding low calorie alternatives to their favorite foods to ensure they don’t pack on the pounds even when choosing to indulge. The market’s desire for these products has grown exponentially, making it more and more acceptable for restaurants and brands to offer lower calorie meal and drink options, and for people to take advantage of them, too.

Aspartame is one of the biggest artificial sweeteners on the ingredients list of diet drinks and sugar packets like NutraSweet and Equal to allow people to essentially have their cake and eat it too. But, paradoxically, amidst this war against obesity and the introduction of low calorie alternatives is rising a massive concern that these sugar substitutes may be damaging our health.

The biggest hurdle that seems to keep people from understanding aspartame is the FDA’s approval of it as a safe sugar alternative. However, the truth about aspartame is so much more than this acceptance. From how it first gained market approval to how it affects the body and the brain, it’s important to uncover the truth to help you rethink including it in your diet.

Here are five things everyone should know about aspartame:

1. The body converts aspartame into formaldehyde, which is a cancer-causing chemical.

In a world struck by cancer at every turn, it is important we continue to understand what is causing its rise in the first place. This chemical sweetener is among the list. When consumed, aspartame, a dipeptide molecule produced by joining phenylalanine and aspartic acid, is completely broken down by the enzymes in the digestive system into the two amino acids and a type of alcohol known as methanol, which eventually converts in the body into formaldehyde. Alone, aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol are toxic to the body, and together they become even more so. Formaldehyde is so widely known to cause bodily harm that even the EPA has classified it as a “probable human carcinogen,” while various studies have concluded this, too.

The methanol in aspartame, for instance, is not accompanied by ethanol like it is in alcoholic beverages and many fruits and vegetables. The problem with this is that ethanol serves to protect against methanol poisoning, so when you consume aspartame, you are no longer being shielded from methanol’s harms to the body, which include embalming living tissues and damaging DNA. Research has even found that it can cause lymphoma, leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

2. Aspartame leads to obesity and metabolic syndrome.

People often turn to diet drinks and sugar alternatives because they have been taught that sugar causes weight gain. But worse than sugar, a number of scientific studies have discovered that aspartame promotes weight gain unrelated to caloric intake, and is even more damaging to the body than consuming good old sugar is. One study compared it to sucrose, and concluded that aspartame is worse in terms of causing weight gain. And another study discovered that aspartame modifies the body’s natural production of hormones, resulting in increased appetite and sugar cravings. Research also suggests that aspartame worsens insulin sensitivity, which is bad news for diabetics.

3. Aspartame was never proven to be safe, and was forcefully approved by the FDA.

The earliest studies on aspartame discovered that the chemical caused grand mal seizures and death in monkeys. These findings were withheld from the FDA. Eventually, FDA scientists discovered this on their own, but G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, waited for a new FDA commissioner to be appointed — one that had no prior experience with food additives — before presenting it to the FDA for commercial approval.

4. Aspartame comes from E. coli bacteria.

To create aspartame, the feces of genetically-modified E. coli bacteria are used to produce unnaturally high levels of an enzyme that produces the phenylalanine needed for the artificial sweetener to be produced.

A 1981 patent for aspartame production, which was once confined to the drawers of patent offices, is now available online explaining this disturbing fact.

Titled “Process for producing aspartame,” the patent reads:

The artificial sweetener aspartame, a dipeptide with the formula Asp-Phe-me, is produced using a cloned microorganism. A DNA which codes for a large stable peptide comprised of the repeating amino acid sequence (Asp-Phe)n is inserted into a cloning vehicle which in turn is introduced into a suitable host microorganism. The host microorganism is cultured and the large peptide containing the repeating Asp-Phe sequence is harvested therefrom. The free carboxyl group of the large peptide is benzylated and then hydrolysed to benzyl Asp-Phe dipeptides. This dipeptide is methylated and then debenzylated to form aspartame.

This very patent also admits that aspartame was intended for mass consumption as a sucrose substitute:

  • Aspartame is not only sweeter than sucrose, but is preferable as a food to sucrose. While sucrose can provide the body with little more than energy, aspartame is composed of amino acids, the building blocks of body proteins, and like other proteins is broken down by the digestive enzymes in the stomach to its constituent amino acids thus providing nutritive value. . . . For these reasons, aspartame holds significant promise in replacing sugar as a sweetener.

5. Aspartame can potentially cause permanent brain damage.

Roughly 40 percent of aspartame is composed of aspartic acid, which is a free-form amino acid that has been found to cross the blood-brain barrier. When high doses of it enter the body, the brain cells are impacted with an extreme amount of calcium, which can lead to neural cell damage and even cell death.

Research has also found that exposure to aspartic acid can lead to epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and dementia.

 Other Research On Aspartame

One of the largest studies of its kind recently examined the link between diet drinks and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and stroke in healthy, postmenopausal women. The research took place at the University of Iowa, and the findings were presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session in Washington, D.C.

60,000 women participated in the study, and it found that women who consumed two or more diet drinks a day are 30 percent more likely to experience a cardiovascular event, and 50 percent more likely to die from a related disease. 

A study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology determined that consumption of sugar sweetened soda increases the odds for kidney function decline. You can read the entire study here

Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that aspartame is linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukaemia in men. You can read the full study here, and we also wrote an article on it that you can read here.

A study out of Arizona State University that was published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition determined that Aspartame causes brain damage by leaving traces of Methanol in the blood. Another study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine determined that longterm consumption of Aspartame leads to an imbalance in the antioxidant/pro-oxidant status in the brain. A study published by Washington University Medical School outlines a possible connection between aspartame and brain tumors.

Author: Alexa Erickson


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