Edited by Peter
One of the best things about being a Z-list internet skeptic is that I no longer have to go out of my way to find crazy conspiracy theories to debunk or quacks to knock down a peg. These days, I am inundated with messages from people who do all the hard work for me. Without their help I would never have discovered the Food Babe or the AIDS denialist documentary “House of Numbers” so I would like to take the time to show my appreciation by taking a request – and there has been one thing that has been brought up time and time again for me to cover – the safety of sugar substitutes.
A sugar substitute is a compound that has a sweet taste like table sugar, but contains significantly less calories. There are many different varieties on the market, but the ones which get the majority of the negative attention by far are saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. Some think that these compounds are responsible for the increased cancer and autism rates in the west, whilst others believe that these compounds will flat-out kill you.
I have previously talked about how saccharin was, in the 1970s, associated with bladder cancer in rats, which let to a ban on the sugar substitute in certain countries and for it to be sold with a warning label in others. It was later, however, discovered that the unique make up of male rat urine combined with saccharin led to the formation of micro-crystals that damaged the lining of the rats’ bladders. The rats then responded to this damage by overproducing bladder cells, which led to tumour formation. You would think that after having the initial claims investigated, and having results showing the substance not to affect humans, that would be an end to the story, but you would be wrong. The internet is ripe with interesting theories and health warnings about these artificial sweeteners, and I have decided that I am going to cover each of these sugar substitutes one by one, starting with Aspartame.
Aspartame is a methylated aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide which is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar, though does not taste exactly the same. Your body can derive energy from the artificial sweetener, but because it is so potent, it’s calorific content is negligible. Aspartame can be found in a whole host of diet products – including in the can of Pepsi Max I am drinking as I write this very blog post.
So why are people worried about aspartame? and what do they think it can do? I think the best way to answer this question is to visit Natural News which, for the first time in its existence, would be considered a credible source. The blog post “What is aspartame? Five surprising facts you never knew about this chemical sweetener” does exactly what it says on the tin, and lists 5 of the most persevering reasons to why you should be worried about ingesting aspartame.
1. Aspartame is converted by the body into formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical.
Aspartame can be metabolised to generate methanol, which can then be oxidised into the “probable human carcinogen”, formaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The problem here is that the level of methanol generated from aspartame is negligible when compared to the level found in fruit juices and citrus fruits. However the blog tries to counter this by saying…
Free methanol in particular is highly toxic, converting first into formaldehyde and then into formic acid upon consumption. Unlike the methanol found in alcoholic beverages and various fruits and vegetables, the methanol produced by aspartame is not accompanied by ethanol, which acts as a protector against methanol poisoning.
Ethanol has a higher binding affinity to ADH than methanol and therefore can be used as a competitive inhibitor and prevent methanol poisoning. It does this by delaying the amount of methanol that is metabolised in a given time period – allowing the body to cope, provided the concentration of ethanol is high enough and remains constant. Put simply, ethanol is not acting as an irreversible inhibitor, and does not flat-out stop methanol being metabolised. Also, the levels of ethanol found in fruits and vegetables are not at high enough concentrations to have any real effect on methanol oxidation.
2. Aspartame causes obesity and metabolic syndrome
The paper referenced here is “Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels” and reported exactly what it suggests from the title. It found that rats fed sugar substitutes gained more weight compared to those fed regular old table sugar.
It’s findings were based on an experiment where 3 groups of rats were all fed the same chow, but one of the groups had access to yoghurt sweetened with 20% table sugar, another 0.3% sodium saccharin, and another 0.4% aspartame. They restricted the rats’ physical movement and, after 12 weeks, noticed that, despite similar caloric intake, the rats fed the yoghurt containing sugar substitutes had gained the most weight.
Unfortunately, the experiment does have a few design flaws. For example, there are only 10 rats in each group – which is a far too low number to get any significant data from. There also wasn’t a group of rats that were fed unsweetened yogurt, or not fed yogurt at all. But by far the most damning flaw is that the rats had some choice in the food they were eating. Although they all consumed roughly the same amount of calories, the rats in the table sugar group were eating more yoghurt and less chow – meaning that they had an inferior diet.
Here, the blog is referencing the review “Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings”. With regards to the “body’s natural production of hormones”, the paper is talking about the body’s reward pathways and how, unlike natural sweeteners, aspartame does not fully activate them. This lack of complete satisfaction may lead to further food-seeking behaviour. The review also brings up the fact that some who knowingly ingest aspartame are overcompensating for the expected caloric reduction – resulting in weight gain. Finally, with regards to sugar cravings, the review had this to say…
artificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence
3. Reagan-appointed FDA commissioner helped get aspartame approved despite evidence showing its toxicity.
I am not evening going to bother looking into this American geocentric argument that is time-locked somewhere in the 1980s. All I am going to say is that aspartame has been extensively researched and, at the acceptable daily intake level, has not been shown to have any negative effects.
4. Aspartame is made from the faeces of genetically-modified (GM) E. coli bacteria.
This is a perfect example of the calibre of writer Natural News attracts. This mix of a lack of basic scientific knowledge and a need to scare the uninformed reader is why their website is a joke to most who read it.
Another disturbing fact about aspartame is that it is produced from the faeces of genetically-modified E. coli bacteria. Similar to the fermentation process, E. coli are modified with special genes that cause them to produce unnaturally high levels of a special enzyme that, as a byproduct, produces the phenylalanine needed for aspartame production.
Phenylalanine is produced on the industrial scale using E. coli which may be genetically modified to increase yields. Phenylalanine is the desired product of a multistep biosynthesis and is not a byproduct or “faeces” which, last time I checked, bacteria (with their lack of digestive tract…) can’t produce. Even if it was a waste byproduct, so what? The alcohol in my beer is waste product, yet you don’t see people saying that it’s icky.
The reference used here is to another blog whose authors (Kristen Butler) lack of understanding is so embarrassing it’s painful. For example, here she is trying to explain the synthesis of aspartame from phenylalanine…
The bacteria waste is then treated to turn the large peptide and a free carboxyl group into a dipeptide. The dipeptides are then treated with alcohol and methanol to produce aspartame.
Her blog also says that genetically modified aspartame has been added to soft drinks here in Britain, and sites an Independent article as a reference. The Independent article is written by someone who also lacks even a basic knowledge on the subject they are covering, and states with some confidence that GM phenylalanine is a thing! What’s worse is that the article then goes on to imply that this GM phenylalanine is potentially dangerous by quoting John Fagan, the founder of Global ID Group, who only stands to benefit from any GM controversy.
Whether such a contaminating compound will be toxic, or not is completely unknowable until empirical studies are done to test toxicity
The level of science reporting on all three sites is so bad, it’s bordering on parody.
5. Aspartame crosses the blood-brain barrier, potentially causing permanent brain damage.
Aspartic acid, like phenylalanine, is simply an amino acid and is needed by the body. Aspartic acid is not an essential amino acid, as the body can synthesise it by itself, but there are dietary sources of the compound including oysters, avocados, and sugar beets. As with everything, it’s the dose that makes the poison – something the author would know if they had bothered to even read the abstract of the paper they are referencing to back them up! A paper whose goal it was to try and see if they could get mice to voluntary ingest a dangerous amount.
The ironic thing about this last one is the website they are using to spread the idea that aspartic acid is dangerous also sells whey protein and boasts about the amount it contains.
In closing, to answer the question “will aspartame kill you?”, based on the evidence put forward in this Natural News post, the Answer is no.