Do you love aspartame? How sweet it isn’t

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

For those who read the study last month confirming that the artificial sweetener aspartame does not cause cancer, did you think it was good news? Think again.

True, the federally funded study done by the National Cancer Institute was large, involving 567,000 people, ages 50-69. But large does not necessarily indicate reliable. Participants were asked to complete a survey, recalling what they ate and drank for a one-year period. Over the next five years when developers of the study followed up with them they found blood-related cancers like lymphomas and leukemias in 2,106 participants, and brain tumors in 376 others. As a result, the study concluded that there was no significant link between these cancers and the amount of aspartame consumption. This appeared to be good news in that it negated a 2005 study on rats in which there was significant data that showed rats dying from brain tumors and cancers as a result of aspartame consumption. But here’s the difference: the rats died a natural death and were then examined for cancers based on their aspartame accumulation. In this most recent study, however, many participants are still alive, so there is no way to determine whether or not the continued accumulation of aspartame will contribute to their natural death. Critics of the study believe that, had more time been allowed to pass, more people would have developed cancers.

For a moment, let’s put those studies aside and look at some facts about aspartame. Commonly known as Nutrasweet or Equal, it was approved by the FDA in 1981 for use as a tabletop sweetener. By 1983, consumption was 3.5 lbs per person, and by 1995, it had increased to 17 pounds per person. Not only did the consumption go up, but so did complaints to the FDA: over 7,000 aspartame-related complaints were reported to the FDA between 1981 and 1995, and aspartame accounted for 75 percent of all reported complaints during that time period. People didn’t call the FDA reporting cancers, but they had plenty of other symptoms: headaches⁄migraines, dizziness, memory loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, joint pain, depression, weight gain and anxiety attacks. And that was the short list.

The cause for those symptoms is not due to how aspartame is ingested, but rather how it breaks down in the body. Aspartame is composed of three chemicals: the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and methanol. When these chemicals break down due to high temperatures like your body temperature, they become toxic. For example, methanol breaks down into formaldehyde — a neurotoxin and known carcinogen, which ultimately breaks down into formic acid, a poison that concentrates in the brain, kidneys, spinal fluid and other tissues.

While there is less controversy right now over another artificial sweetener, sucralose (commercially sold as Splenda) it is also a chemical that breaks down in the body, albeit less so than aspartame. But Sucralose is made by attaching 3 chlorine atoms to sucrose, a sugar molecule. After this process, sucralose joins a class of chemicals called chlorocarbons, which also includes, among other environmental toxins, PCBs.

Does aspartame, or any artificial sweetener help dieters keep the weight off? Here, there is still controversy. True, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so it contributes fewer calories to food. This makes it appealing to those who think it will help them lose weight, or to diabetics who are controlling their sugar intake.

One study, however, done by the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, found that for each can of diet soft drink consumed each day, a person’s risk of obesity went up 41 percent. This may be because people think that they are doing something healthy for themselves by eliminating sugar, but then they eat more to replace those calories. In order for diet soft drinks to help with a weight loss plan, other habits must also change, including fewer trips to fast food restaurants.

Metabolically, excessive amounts of phenylalanine found in artificially flavored foods and drinks can also greatly affect mood by causing a decrease in the levels of the mood regulator, serotonin. As a result, carbohydrate cravings go up and the thought of a successful diet goes out the window. Artificial sweeteners, therefore, can sometimes contribute to compulsive eating instead of controlling overeating.

So where is the good news in all of this? What happens to the diet coke that you just can’t live without? Here’s my advice: Go easy. Do the best you can to wean yourself off super sized diet sodas. Eliminate the artificially flavored foods and drinks that you know you can do without. Shoot for one diet soft drink a day, replacing the other drinks with lemon flavored water, sparkling water, or a glass of _ juice and — water. Another option is to choose products sweetened with sugar alcohols like mannitol and xylitol. They are sweet and do not raise insulin levels, so they are safe for diabetics as well. But careful with using too much: they can also cause some gastric distress.

For others who wish to control sugar cravings, try adding some chromium and glutamine to your supplement regime. Chromium is a natural blood sugar balancer and can help stem sweet cravings. Another strategy is to increase your protein intake, which will naturally diminish carbohydrate cravings

Two weeks ago the FDA reported that benzene, another known carcinogen found in diet sodas, is above a safe limit but still is not harmful. This contradicted an earlier statement that levels of benzene in diet soda were insignificant. I bring this up because, at the end of the day as studies flip flop on findings, you will have to make the final decision on what’s right for your health and your body. As for artificial sweeteners, maybe it’s time to find other ways to make life sweeter.