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Nutrition Section

Aspartame the artificial sweetener

Aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are common replacements for sugar in our foods. While we are so hooked on cutting the calories by reducing the sugar content in our foods, we should not overlook the side effects of synthesised sweeteners.

The fact that they are all linked to some serious (often fatal) ailments, poses the question: "How did they get accepted through the FDA and the other food and drug authorities in the first place?

Fat legs on scales

The focus today is on weight loss

Although aspartame metabolises to produce 4 kilo-calories per gram of energy, because it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, the quantity of aspartame needed to produce a sweet taste is so small that its caloric contribution is negligible. Put simply - gram for gram, aspartame is far higher in calories than sugar but because it is 200 times sweeter, we use 0.02 times as much. The result is the same sweetness for 0.02 of the original calories - usually not enough calories to add to the equation!

For food manufacturers this is a huge bonus in today's marketplace where the focus is on weight loss.

Now for the master stroke - unlike the other sugar substitutes which are subject to patents, aspartame's patent has expired. This makes it much cheaper than the competing sugar substitutes because there are no royalties involved. From a manufacturers point of view they can't lose!

The taste of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners differ from that of table sugar in the times of onset and how long the sweetness lasts, though aspartame comes closest amongst artificial sweeteners to sugar's taste profile. The sweetness of aspartame lasts longer than sucrose (sugar), so it is often blended with other artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium to produce an overall taste more like sugar.

The expiry of the patents, meaning no royalties and the ability to mimic sugar while reducing the calories (or kilojoues) has meant that aspartame has crept into many foods - foods we would least suspect.

Other Aspartame products

Aspartame is used in many other products where you wouldn't expect it to be.

Aspartame is a common sweetener in many popular foods, especially low sugar sweet foods, but has a suspected link to cancer. The FDA has decided that so long as the consumption levels remain very low, the danger is almost zero, so we consume many foods today that actually contain known carcinogens and similar toxins.

Aspartame rapidly breaks down with heat, so it is no use in cooked foods, however it has a long half life (approx 300 days) at room temperature and low pH (acidic conditions). For this reason it is well suited to replace sugar in soft drinks where the carbon dioxide (CO2 that causes the fizziness ) is usually around a pH of 3.


It's used to reduce sugar in non-diet soda as well as diet soda (or softdrinks).

It is marketed under the names of Nutrasweet, Equal or Canderel and is a common sweetener in most soft drinks (or sodas as you call them in the USA). In diabetic or low sugar (low calorie) soft drinks it is the main sweetener usually with saccharin. Many people use it as a sugar replacement in tea or coffee. Fast food outlets and coffe bars offer it as an alternative sweetener to sugar.

Aspartame's not so good side effects

When it was clinically trialled, it was found to be harmless. However since then we have established that one of the compounds that it breaks down into, in the body, is linked to an increase in cancer. There is also a rare genetic condition, phenylketonuria (PKU) that prevents some people from metabolising the naturally-occurring essential amino acid phenylalanine, one of the by products that Aspartame breaks down into.

Several people who have raised official concerns against Aspartame have moved on to well paid marketing positions elsewhere, giving rise to conspiracy theories. Samuel Skinner, the U.S. attorney who led the grand jury probe into aspartame and it's Manufacturer, G.D. Searle & Co. ended up withdrawing from the case when he entered into job discussions with Searle’s Chicago law firm, Sidley & Austin – a job he later accepted. Before the case could be reapplied for Grand Jury hearing, the statute of limitations ran out, so the case was never heard. Debate still rages about the side effects and the validity of the original testing that claimed aspartame had no harmful side effects. The whole conspiracy theory issue has become an urban myth.

Of course the manufacturers claim aspartame is safe but have not successfully sued organisations who disparage aspartame either. Given the litigious nature of the corporate world, especially in the USA, that should ring alarm bells. Unfortunately there are some huge names with vested interests in keeping aspartame (and other artificial sweeteners) on the market. Just in the soft drink industry alone, the market is worth billions of dollars.

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Action on Aspatame

1991 The UK legislates to force manufacturers to list aspartame as a separate ingredient, so it should show on the label. One reason for this is aspartame breaks down in the body to form high levels of the naturally-occurring essential amino acid phenylalanine. People who are born with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disease that prevents phenylalanine from being properly metabolised can be poisoned by a high intake of aspartame. Since individuals with PKU must consider aspartame as an additional source of phenylalanine, foods containing aspartame sold in the United States must state "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine" on their product labels.

Wall of soda cans

Almost all soft drinks (soda) contains aspartame and is toxic to people with PKU.

1998 - Testing of aspartame ingestion finds that formaldehyde compounds as a result of digestive breakdown of aspartame is damaging to cellular DNA in the same way that cancers effect DNA. This means it is possible that aspartame could be a precursor to several types of cancers, especially lymphoma or leukemia.

2005 - Italian study by the Ramazzini Institute of Oncology raised serious doubts about the sweetener. The study looked at the effects of aspartame on 1,800 male and female rats, using six different control doses. Aspartame administered at varying levels in feed caused a statistically significant increase of lymphomas and leukemia, malignant tumors of the kidneys in female rats and malignant tumors of peripheral and cranial nerves in male rats. Such tumors occurred even in doses well below the acceptable daily intake recommended as ‘safe’ by regulatory authorities in the EU and the US. Pressure by industry led to a European Food Safety Agency statement that consumers should not be worried.

2006 - Eleven legislators in New Mexico asked US President GW Bush, the FDA chief Von Eschenbach and the US Health Secretary Michael Leavitt, to override and cancel the previous approval of Aspartame. (

2007 – Indonesia bans products containing Aspartame

2007 - In the UK Sainsburys and Asda a subsidiary of Walmart withdrew all aspartame product from their shelves.

2009 - Ajinomoto Sweeteners Europe, the manufacturer of Aspartame, sues Asda, filing a complaint of malicious falsehood against Asda in the English courts. Asda wins the case.

2009, the South African retailer Woolworths announced it was removing aspartame from its own-brand foods.

2010 - the British Food Standards Agency launched an investigation into aspartame amid claims that some people experience side-effects after consuming the substance.

2010 In June 2010, an appeals court for the 2009 case of Ajinomoto versus Asda reversed the decision, allowing Ajinomoto to pursue a case against Asda to protect aspartame's reputation. Asda said that it would continue to use the term "no nasties" on its own-label products, but the suit was settled in 2011 with ASDA choosing to remove negative references to aspartame from its packaging.

2013 - Because sucralose, unlike aspartame, retains its sweetness after being heated, and has at least twice the shelf life of aspartame, it has become more popular as an ingredient. This, along with differences in marketing and changing consumer preferences, caused aspartame to lose market share to sucralose. Today Aspartame is uses as a sugar reducer/sweetener in fewer products. For most people their highest source of aspartame would be through softdrinks (soda) which is especially alarming, since children are one of the main consumers of softdrink.

Is Aspartame linked to Cancer?

Aspartame would have to be one of the most tested food additives known to man. After examining the data from several experiments personally, I have to say there is a link between tumours, carcinomas and aspartame but the link is to the by products formed in the body when aspartame is digested. Rats are used as a test subject and are ideal because they process aspartame the same way we do. The initial experiments tested rats from pregnancy, birth and through their life to adult reproducers. It is in their later life we see the worst effects appear. It takes a while to see the effects on an aspartame diet on them but it's very hard to ignore results like these.

Aspartame tumour on rat

In tests on rats, the effects appeared on older rats, beyond the age originally used for FDA tests and were hard to ignore.

Usually we test these effects with rats or mice because they breed so fast but in this case Rats are deemed even more appropriate subjects for testing aspartame on humans because both humans and rats metabolise the methyl ester in aspartame into methyl alcohol, then formaldehyde then formic acid – all known poisons. The carcinogenicity of substances in rats and mice is a consistent predictor of cancer risk in humans exposed to those substances.

Neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, MD, one of the world’s leading authorities on aspartame neuro-toxicity, extensively reviewed the Soffritti report. “This study confirmed the previous study by Dr. Trocho and co-workers (1998), which also found the formaldehyde breakdown product of aspartame to be damaging to cellular DNA and that this damage was cumulative. The type of damage was a duplicate of that associated with cancers. These two studies strongly indicate that drinking a single diet cola sweetened with aspartame every day could significantly increase one’s risk of developing a lymphoma or leukemia,” Blaylock said.

The European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences Cancer Research Centre in Bolonga, Italy, released their three year study in July 2005, confirming the link between aspartame and lymphomas and leukemias.The study commenced with 8 week old rats and continued until the last one died at 159 weeks. Their physical status and behaviour were examined three times daily and detailed records of their growth were kept. Every two weeks each of the 3,600 rats were “clinically examined for gross changes.” As each rat died, a complete autopsy was performed. Organs, tissues and bones were preserved for further study.

This study should terrify mothers and all those consuming aspartame sweetened products,” he continued. “This was a carefully done study which clearly demonstrated a statistically significant increase in several types of lymphomas and leukemias in rats. Both of these malignancies have increased significantly in this country since the widespread use of aspartame.”

They found an increased incidence of malignant brain tumours, even though it was not statistically significant. This does not mean there is no association to brain tumours, since ONLY the animals exposed to aspartame developed the tumours. With children and pregnant women drinking the largest amount of diet colas, this puts their children at the greatest risk of developing one of these horrible diseases. They found that even lower doses of aspartame could cause these malignancies, yet, the higher the dose, the more cancers that were seen.

“Since aspartame can increase obesity and may even cause the metabolic syndrome that affects 48 million Americans, there is no reason to ever consume this product. At the least, it should be immediately banned from all schools,” said Blaylock.

World Consumption

Unless you are willing to outlay thousands of dollars to commission a market report, it is impossible to get up to date figures on consumption. With all the negative publicity about aspartame, they are keeping any evidence they can, away from the public. However, a 2009 Food Navigator article cites t he current global market for aspartame as being less than 37.5 million pounds and worth $637 million. It is very difficult to estimate consumption of aspartame accurately. A 350ml (12 ounce) can of diet soda contains 180 mg of aspartame, and according to FDA projections USA residents consume an estimated average of 200 mg per day. However, it can be quite difficult to calculate just how much you’re really ingesting, especially if you consume several types of aspartame-containing foods and beverages. You are probably consuming aspartame in some foods and medications without realising it is even there. Dosing can vary wildly from product to product. For example, the amount of aspartame will vary from brand to brand, and from flavour to flavour. Some can contain close to twice the amount of aspartame as others, and some contain a combination of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

Interestingly, aspartame consumption now seems to have stalled, and there is some indication it may even be on the decline. Perhaps sufficient numbers of people are finally waking up to the unsavoury truth about this chemical sweetener. The big brand names like Pepsi and Coca-cola are now bringing out products that use stevia as a sweetener in an effort to reduce aspartame and sugar contents in their products but retain the same level of sweetness

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