Aspartame and Multiple Sclerosis, Bitter Connection

aspartame and multiple sclerosis

Some evidence exists of a relationship between aspartame and multiple sclerosis. What do we know about the link between this common artificial sweetener and MS?


Not much has been written about a connection between aspartame and multiple sclerosis, although it is a topic that is frequently raised among those with MS. Given the widespread use of this no-calorie product (aka NutraSweet, Equal, Equal-Measure, Spoonful) and the thousands of everyday products in which it appears, it’s important to explore what has been discovered thus far.

The artificial sweetener aspartame has been categorized as an additive to avoid by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. It has been shown to be associated with cancer in animals and to increase the risk of cancer in men. The sweetener may be linked to preterm delivery and is known to cause headache and dizziness. It also may affect the nervous system and be associated with multiple sclerosis.

Aspartame and the brain
According to Dr. Russell L. Blaylock, a board certified neurosurgeon and the author of Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, aspartame is in the category mentioned in his book title. Excitotoxins are chemicals (usually amino acids such as aspartate and glutamate) that are commonly used to enhance the flavor of foods. In addition to aspartame, other food-related excitotoxins include monosodium glutamate, soy protein extract, and hydrolyzed protein.

The major problem with excitotoxins is that they overstimulate brain cell (neuron) receptors. Overstimulation of the brain cells causes them to send out signals so rapidly that the brain loses synapses and connecting fibers, and the cells eventually die. Blaylock notes that excitotoxicity has a major role in multiple sclerosis because it destroys the cells called oligodendrocytes that produce myelin (the fatty substance that protects the nerve cells).

Aspartame, methyl alcohol, and formaldehyde
Another health expert who frowns on aspartame is Dr. Woody Monte, a respected expert on methanol and aspartame and professor emeritus at Arizona State University in food and chemistry. He has explained that aspartame, which is composed of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid and an alcohol (methanol), has a synthetic methyl group bound to the former amino acid.

This phenylalanine methyl bond is not strong, and methyl alcohol (also known as wood alcohol) can be released easily by, say, exposing a soft drink containing aspartame to high temperatures.


Methyl alcohol is cheap and can be used to flavor a wide variety of products, so it is perfect in the eyes of people in the food and drug industries. When methyl alcohol has been tested in animals, as is the trend when food additives are researched for safety and efficacy, it has not sent up major red flags.

However, animals and humans metabolize methyl alcohol differently, explains Dr. Monte, and therein lies a danger. Although both animals and people have the same structures in their cells called peroxisomes that can detoxify chemicals, animals do it much better when it comes to methyl alcohol.

What’s the difference? Peroxisomes contain catalase, an enzyme that helps detoxify methanol after it is transformed to formaldehyde, a toxic substance. Fortunately, other chemicals then change the formaldehyde to a harmless substance called formic acid. The problem is this latter process occurs only in animals and not in humans.

In blood vessels in the brain, there is an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that converts methanol to formaldehyde. Because there is no catalase there to make the formaldehyde harmless, however, much damage can occur. Monte notes there are various areas in the body where alcohol dehydrogenase converts methanol into formaldehyde (what Monte calls a methylating monster), and many of them are susceptible to the development of chronic disease such as MS.

Bottom line

Dr. Monte believes a cause of multiple sclerosis involves the presence of aspartame and the series of bodily processes that occur once it is consumed. He encourages people with multiple sclerosis or with symptoms of the disease to avoid foods that contain aspartame and those associated with methanol.

Therefore, his foods to avoid list includes the following: fruits and vegetables (including their juices) that are overly ripe or nearly rotting or those packaged in bottles, cans, or pouches; smoked foods (especially meats and fish), any commercially available jellies, jams, and marmalades; tomato juice and black currant products; fruit schnapps; any food, beverage, medication, or supplement that contains aspartame. You also should avoid cigarettes.

Blaylock RL. Is glutamine supplementation helpful or harmful?
Centers for Science in the Public Interest Toxicology experts explains why aspartame is so dangerous to your health

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Science does not substantiate the claims made here, and quite to the contrary, proves that aspartame is safe. For example, following one of the most comprehensive risk assessments of aspartame to-date, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that aspartame does not harm the nervous system or brain, cause cancer, or affect behavior or cognitive function in children or adults. The EFSA’s overarching takeaway is that aspartame is indeed safe for consumption by the general population, including pregnant women, adding to a vast body of science that shares this conclusion. In other words, despite alarmist and inaccurate media hype, aspartame and products containing this ingredient can be safely enjoyed, and are no cause for concern. -American Beverage Association
The American Beverage Association can deny the actual, unbiased science as much as it wants to, but that will not stop curious consumers from learning the truth. It must be a tough pill to swallow knowing that sales of aspartame-laden drinks are dropping like a rock with no end in sight.
I would not use it either, but it 's true there are no scientific studies to support this. But all autoimmune diseases have a trigger that changes gene expression. Aspartame could indeed do that. No studies say it could not.
Thank you American Beverage Association, Matt, and Kathleen for your comments. Kathleen has said it quite well: "no studies say it could not" be harmful. The ABA obviously has a financial stake in saying aspartame is not dangerous. Individuals who have experienced adverse side effects when using products containing aspartame do not need scientific studies to tell them if they are feeling bad or not. And there are studies that suggest this artificial substance can cause harm and science that explains the biochemical processes that occur when ingesting aspartame. At this point, all consumers can do is review the information on both sides of the aisle from experts as well as individuals' experiences and anecdotal evidence and make a decision about whether they want to consume this substance.
I find it crazy that the ABA believes that their denial of this really would have any impact on scientific beliefs or people's beliefs as they obviously have a financial impact on them. Their "opinion" is obviously biased. This is what I personally know as a MS patient, when I drink Diet Coke I feel worse. Yes, I do still drink it on occasion but not as much as I used to. I think anything that doesn't naturally occur in nature has some kind of negative impact on our bodies. Garbage in garbage out.
"media hype" - From which direction? LOL