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From soda to gum, Aspartame is in all kinds of products, but what is it?The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.

Last week, we took a look at refined sugar vs. organic sugar. This week, we begin talking about artificial sweeteners…those no-calorie, no-carb sweeteners that star in sugar-free, reduced-calories products. The word “artificial” is usually a big red flag. So, what’s the deal with these zero-cal sweeteners? We’re going to focus on the big three, the colorful packets you’ll find on most restaurant tables: Equal/NutraSweet (aspartame), Splenda (Sucralose), and Sweet‘N Low (saccharin). Today is aspartame day.

I’ve heard that aspartame can be bad for your health, but many diet programs still recommend alternative sweeteners. So can it really be that bad for you? There’s a lot of hearsay about aspartame and artificial sweeteners, but I don’t like to believe rumors…so let’s get some facts.

Aspartame can be found in just about any type of food product out there. It has been added to everything from diet soda to breakfast cereal and medicine. As with all artificial sweeteners, the intention is to sweeten a food/beverage without calories or any effect on blood sugar levels. Aspartame is marketed under the brand names of Equal Original, NutraSweet, and AminoSweet (as well as other generic or store-brand names). It is 160-200 times sweeter than refined white sugar.

The History of Aspartame

Aspartame was first up for FDA approval in 1980 but failed to pass after three independent researchers concluded it “might induce brain tumors” and voted against approval. They tried again a year later with a five-member vote, and it was about to fail again (3-2 against approving it) until a last-minute sixth member was added, resulting in a deadlocked decision. The then-FDA commissioner broke the tie himself, passing approval for aspartame. Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1981 and classified as a food additive. In 1985, the patent to aspartame was purchased by the Monsanto Company.

How is it made?

Chemically, aspartame is: N-(L-?-Aspartyl)-L-phenylalanine methyl ester (Asp-Phe me). This molecule is composed of three main parts: aspartate, phenylalanine, and methanol. Out of those three molecules, phenylalanine may ring a bell. More on this in the side effects section. Aspartame is extracted as a byproduct from genetically modified E. coli bacteria. It was discovered by accident in 1965 when a scientist licked his finger in the lab. (Side note: why on earth would anyone working in a lab filled with E. coli EVER lick his/her fingers?!) “Byproduct” is a polite way of saying “excrement”.

How is it processed in your body?

When you ingest aspartame, it breaks down into those three components mentioned above: aspartate, phenylalanine, and methanol. It then breaks down some more, adding formaldehyde, formic acid, and byproduct called DKP. These are a bunch of compounds that are less than desirable to have floating around your body. Here are some common concerns associated with these compounds:

aspartate – headaches, nervous system disorders, increase blood alcohol levels; tachycardia and heart palpitations in some conditions

phenylalanine – increased risk of birth defects, people with PKU (more below) and schizophrenia should avoid it

methanol – labeled at toxic to humans, weakness, dizziness, nausea

formaldehyde – known human carcinogen

DKP – linked to brain tumors and uterine polyps

Side Effects?

According to sources, aspartame may account for 75%+ of all food additive side effect complaints and 5 deaths. As with many foods and chemicals (natural or synthetic), sensitivity varies from person to person. One person may be able to eat aspartame with no side effects at all, and think the person next to them, complaining of migraines, is crazy. However, the documented side effects from aspartame can include:

muscle spasms
weight gain
heart palpitations
joint pain
memory loss
increased appetite

One of the main components of aspartame is phenylalanine. One genetic condition, phenylketonuria (PKU), means your body can’t break down this molecule. Buildup of phenylalanine in the body causes a range of symptoms from the mild: behavioral problems, social problems, arm/leg jerking movements, hyperactivity, skin rashes, fair skin/eyes; to the more severe symptoms: mental retardation, stunted growth, or small head size. Anyone with PKU must restrict all forms of phenylalanine in their diet. It is naturally-occurring in most protein-rich foods (meats, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, soy products), but it is most abundant in aspartame. Here’s the important note: PKU can be caused by genetic mutation. This genetic mutation is more likely to occur in the babies of moms with higher levels of phenylalanine in their bodies.

Health Concerns?

The FDA stands by its approval of aspartame. Aren’t there studies showing health concerns? Yes. Aren’t there studies proving it’s safe? Yes.

Out of 166 aspartame-related studies, 74 were funded by someone in the aspartame industry, and 92 were funded by independent researchers. In the industry-funded research, 100% of results reported the safety of aspartame (shocker). In the independent research, 92% reported cause for concern. The biggest health concerns you’ll see mentioned are: brain tumors, birth defects, diabetes, mood disorders, and seizures.

There is a lot of hearsay in the aspartame controversy. There have been accusations of trials cancelled due to negative findings, accusations of tumors removed from specimens later reported as healthy, even reports of lab animal deaths reported as surviving. Overall, it’s a messy battle. I try to stay out of these types of dirty controversies and just stick to the facts and my gut instincts. In the end, it’s your body and your call.

Important Stuff

Let’s get down to the important stuff. The purpose of aspartame is to cut calories and protect blood glucose levels, to aid in weight loss or diabetic prevention/maintenance. Does aspartame do that? Not really.

A recent 2011 study shows “that diet soft drink consumption is associated with increased waist circumference in humans, and a second study that found aspartame raised fasting glucose (blood sugar) in diabetes-prone mice.” There are studies that show that aspartame may actually increase your appetite. So, why use it at all??


Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That’s how I feel about aspartame. There are enough acknowledged side effects to show there’s something going on in the brain or nervous system when aspartame is introduced. Do I want to eat something that negatively affects my brain just to save a few calories? Nope. Brains are impossible to replace, so let’s not put ours in danger just to save 100 calories. How do you feel about it?

Next week…

We’ll learn a little bit more about Splenda (sucralose). I remember when it first hit the market with so much excitement and fanfare. Finally, a zero-calorie sweetener that “is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar!” Let’s get the facts on sucralose.