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New Worries about Low Calorie Sweetener Aspartame


Aspartame is a common low calorie sweetener found in thousands of food and beverage products, but some people have been skeptical about the safety of this compound. A new report highlights the carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties of the substance in the central nervous system, which is a good reason to pause and review the potential hazards of aspartame.

What you should know about aspartame

Aspartame (e.g., NutraSweet, Equal) is a low-calorie sweetener that was first discovered in 1965 and which has been a part of the food and beverage supply since the 1980s in the United States. It is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) and found in more than 6,000 foods and beverages, according to the Calorie Control Council.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Cancer Society state aspartame is safe for human consumption, much research suggests otherwise. For example, a recent report from researchers at the University of Life Sciences in Poland explains that aspartame has a negative effect on brain function.

Aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%), and methanol (10%) when it is metabolized in the body. Excess phenylalanine interrupts the transport of critical amino acids to the brain, resulting in reduced levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are involved with regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep.

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The researchers also reported that the metabolite of aspartame, called diketopiperazine, is carcinogenic in the central nervous system (CNS) and has a role in the formation of CNS tumors. In addition, the main source of these tumors, which can be caused inter alia by aspartame in the brain, are glial cells. Glial cells have a critical role in the development of many CNS diseases.

Scores of previous studies have indicated that aspartame has a role in a wide range of health problems in both animal and human studies, including but not limited to brain damage, mood and behavioral changes, neurochemical changes in the brain, difficulties with cognitive skills, increase in hunger and body weight, retinal damage, seizures, migraine, and cancer (in animals). These problems typically are associated with high, long-term use.

A few examples of other research and comments concerning aspartame:

  • A study published is Psychiatry noted that people with mood disorders and a history of depression had severe reactions to aspartame. The study in which these individuals were participating had to be stopped because of their reactions.
  • Several large studies have noted individuals who consume beverages with artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, experience more weight gain and have higher body mass indexes than people who don’t use these sweeteners. Why? Because these products are so sweet, they promote sugar cravings.
  • In 2012, Swedish researchers evaluated the use of artificially sweetened and sugar sweetened beverages among pregnant women. They found that women who drank more than 1 artificially sweetened beverage daily had an increased risk of giving birth prematurely.
  • A 2010 study reported that aspartame was found to be carcinogenic in several sites in rodents, specifically the liver and lung.
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest has long listed aspartame on its “avoid” list of food additives because of worrisome findings in dozens of studies, including the development of leukemia, kidney tumors, and lymphomas in rats.
  • The findings of a 2008 study found that excessive aspartame use may compromise learning, affect emotional functioning, and cause certain mental disorders.
  • An April 2013 study in rats found that long-term intake of aspartame resulted in reduced concentrations of glutathione and its enzyme glutathione reductase in the brain. Glutathione is sometimes referred to as a master antioxidant, and it is found in every cell in the body, an indication of its importance in human health.

Aspartame may sweeten your food and beverages, but is it sweetening your health? That’s a question on which experts still do not agree. Health conscious consumers would do well to consider the reported dangers of aspartame when making food and beverage choices for themselves and their families.

Abhilash M et al. Long-term consumption of aspartame and brain antioxidant defense status. Drug and Chemical Toxicology 2013 Apr; 36(2): 135-40
Aspartame administered in feed, beginning prenatally through life span, induces cancers of the liver and lung in male Swiss mice. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 2010 Dec; 53(12): 1197-1206
Englund-Ogge L et al. Association between intake of artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverages and preterm delivery: a large prospective cohort study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012 Sep; 96(3): 552-59
Humphries P et al. Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008; 62: 451-62
Potenza DP, el-Mallakh RS. Aspartame: clinical update. Connecticut Medicine 1990 Apr; 54(4): 235-36
Rycerz K, Jaworska-Adamu JE. Effects of aspartame metabolites on astrocytes and neurons. Folia Neuropathologica 2013; 51(1): 10-17
Walton RG et al. Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population. Psychiatry 1993 Jul 1; 34(1): 13-17
Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Journal of Biological Medicine 2010 Jun; 83(2): 101-8

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