Aspartame is a pervasive ingredient that is used as a low-calorie sweetener in a wide range of food and beverages. I got into a discussion about it recently because I was drinking a Diet Mountain Dew, which is sweetened using aspartame, and was informed that instead of being helpful as a way to watch Calories it would actually make me gain weight and that it causes all kinds of other health problems. I’ve heard many of these claims before and, being the skeptic that I am, was is the antithesis of scientific skepticism. So I decided to look into what the side-effects of aspartame might be.
Doing a Google search, one of the first websites I came across was hosted by Janet Starr Hull who is the creator of the Aspartame Detox program. This page reinforced my skepticism because, while I know very little about Hull, her homepage begins by hawking her book, then immediately follows with a link to submit your case of how aspartame negatively affected you. In the next paragraph she tells a vivid, yet completely unverifiable tale about how she was misdiagnosed with Graves disease in the early 1990s but restored her health with her own detox program. This is all very reminiscent of the tactics used by Dudley LeBlanc to hawk Hadacol in the 1940s and by Super-Charlatan Kevin Trudeau in all of his bogus blatherings. Furthermore, Hull refers to herself as Dr. Hull but is vague about her professional credentials, her website states that she has a doctorate in nutrition but she does not say from where, which sets off my skeptic alarms even further: One can purchase a Ph.D based on life experience for $849. I am not accusing Hull of purchasing her doctorate but since she is not forthcoming on her website about where she received it we can’t easily tell. After a little digging I found that she got a Ph.D in holistic nutrition from the Clayton College of Natural Health, which, before it closed was an unaccredited institution, that specialized in “alternative” medicine. Finally, she promotes other things on her website that are definitely bogus. For example you can link to her online hair analysis program with the assurance that if you send in a hair sample it will help you detect any toxic chemicals in your system as well as nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. Hull’s credibility is definitely suspect but whether this because she is a charlatan or just overly-credulous I do not know for certain. I do, however, know that she is not an authoritative source and that I don’t trust her for objective information. The problem is that she has been cited in at least one research article as the source of claims about the ill-effects of aspartame. So, credible or not, she is evidently affecting public opinion about aspartame.
It is with this in mind that I decided to look at some of the actual research on aspartame to see if there is any real concern to be had. Aspartame was discovered in 1965, and unlike other artificial sweeteners it is the only one that is completely broken down by the body into its constituent components: amino acids, aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. All of these components are present in other foods and are used by the body the same way whether they come from aspartame or other sources.
With regard to potential side-effects, there was a study done in 2005 that did find that people who regularly drank diet sodas had a 41% increase in the chance of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink he or she consumed. This, however, says absolutely nothing about the role of aspartame in the process. Even the study’s authors concluded that soda is not the root of obesity and conclude that it may be something that is correlated with diet soda drinking that causes the weight gain. There are other concerns with aspartame, though. It has been speculated that aspartame may cause increased allergic reactions based on anecdotal reports of increased headache and other allergic signs and symptoms. However a study out of Duke University found no difference between placebo and aspartame groups in allergic signs. Other studies have confirmed that aspartame is no more likely than a placebo to cause allergic sensitivity.
One real potential problem with aspartame is that one of the constituent components is methanol. Methanol breaks down into formaldehyde, which then breaks down into Formic acid. These can be toxic to humans at high enough levels. However it has been shown that we break down and excrete formic acid faster than we accumulate it through consumption of aspartame.
There is more to this controversy but the fact is that Aspartame is one of the most studied and tested food additives ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It has been shown repeatedly that aspartame is safe for most people (there is a notable exception for those individuals with a condition called Phenylketonuria). So relax and enjoy your low calorie yogurt and your diet soda, just consume them in moderate amounts and you’ll be fine.