By Peggy Huff
Aspartame is a synthetic chemical made up of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine and a methyl ester that breaks down into methyl alcohol (wood alcohol). It is 200 times sweeter than sugar (but considered to be calorie-free) and was approved by the FDA in 1981 as a tabletop sweetener and for use in gum, breakfast cereals and other dry products. The use of aspartame was expanded to soft drinks in 1983 and then for use as a general-purpose sweetener in all foods and drinks in 1996. It is marketed under the names Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel and is found in over 6000 foods (including many chewable vitamins) and beverages worldwide. The current “acceptable daily intake” of 50 mg/kg body weight represents the projection of animal studies based on lifetime intake.
Metabolism of Aspartame
Upon ingestion, aspartame breaks down into several chemicals, including phenylalanine, aspartic acid, methanol and formaldehyde, to name a few. Phenylalanine naturally occurs in the human body and aspartame’s breakdown to this essential amino acid poses a health risk to those born with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disease that prevents phenylalanine from being converted into tyrosine and eventually metabolized. All aspartame-containing foods sold in the United States must state “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine” on their product labels.
Alcoholic beverages contain methanol impurities, the body is protected from methanol by the preferential metabolism of ethanol.
The human body lacks the enzyme required to split methanol from pectin in fruits and vegetables, so the methanol is never released into our bodies when consuming alcoholic beverages. There is so much more ethanol than methanol in alcoholic drinks that the body does not have time to metabolize the methanol and it is excreted naturally through the breath and urine. (You’d need to drink 58 bottles of Jack Daniels at once to reach toxic levels of methanol…)
The bad news is, when we ingest aspartame, humans do possess the enzyme required to separate methanol from the amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine in this case). Methanol is then released and absorbed into the body, is unstable in the body and gets converted into formaldehyde, characterized as a class A poison, which is used to prevent dead bodies from decaying, i.e. embalming fluid. Some formaldehyde will be converted into formic acid, which can cause central nervous system depression, coma and death, in certain quantities. Adverse effects of formaldehyde include irreversible genetic defects, degeneration of white blood cells, leukemia, and nose/throat cancer.
By 1995, the FDA received 7,232 complaints about aspartame. (See Table 1). Continued use of aspartame can cause aggravation of diabetes mellitus, hypoglycemia, convulsions, headache, depression, hyperthyroidism, hypertension, arthritis and brain tumors. Aspartame use can create symptoms that simulate multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, System Lupus Erythematosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) to name a few. Aspartame intake can result in increased food consumption, damage to the retina or optic nerves and can affect the amino acid-derived neurotransmitters. In addition, aspartame changes the ratio of amino acids in the blood, blocking or lowering the levels of serotonin, tyrosine, dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenaline.
Table 2 below shows a breakdown of specific complaints associated with aspartame use. (Roberts, HJ. Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic West Palm Beach, Sunshine Sentinel Press, 2001, www.sunsentpress.com)
Decreased vision, blurred vision, tunnel vision, “bright flashes” ,etc. 302
Pain (one or both eyes) 87
Decreased tears, trouble with contact lens, or both 95
Blindness (one or both eyes) 27
Tinnitus (“ringing”) 146
Severe intolerance for noise 80
Marked impairment of hearing 57
Dizziness, unsteadiness, or both 376
Confusion, memory loss, or both 376
Severe drowsiness and sleepiness 150
Parenthesis (“pins and needles”) or numbness of limbs 183
Convulsions (grand mal epileptic attacks) 129
Petit mal attacks 36
Non-classified seizures 21
Severe slurring of speech 124
Severe tremors 101
Severe “hyperactivity” and “restless legs” 78
Atypical facial pain 70
Simulation of multiple sclerosis 28
Severe depression 281
Suicidal ideas/attempts 46
Extreme Irritability 194
Severe anxiety attacks 201
Marked personality changes 167
Recent severe insomnia 169
Severe aggravation of phobias 77
Addiction to aspartame 32
Palpitations, tachycardia or both 193
Shortness of breath 110
Atypical chest pain 85
Recent hypertension 64
Abdominal pain 125
Pain on swallowing 61
Severe itching without a rash 87
Severe lip and mouth reactions 54
Uricaria (hives) 47
Severe genital itching, rash, or both 25
Lupus Erythematosus-type eruption 7
Other rashes 101
Marked thinning or loss of hair 71
Aggravation of respiratory allergies 17
Dual sensitivity to MSG 14
Paradoxical marked weight gain 83
Marked weight loss 40
Severe joint pains 163
Leg and hand cramps 28
Myasthenia gravis 8
Problems with diabetes (loss of control/aggravation of diabetic complications, etc.) 118
Aggravated hypoglycemia 74
Menstrual changes (reduction or cessation of periods) 76
Hyperthyroidism (Grave’s Disease) 8
Frequency of voiding, burning on urination, or both 126
Intense thirst 116
Fluid retention and swelling (feet and legs) 43
Kidney stones 3
The term “aspartame disease” has been coined to encompass the reactions to the chemical sweetener. For a chemical that was originally being tested to prevent ulcers, it has been shown to create peptic ulcers. In addition, aspartame use has been reported to mimic Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Post-poli Syndrome, Lyme Disease, Grave’s Disease, Mainer’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Hypothyroidism, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Parkinson’s Disease, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Attention Deficit Disorder.
Health professionals are often unable to diagnose a case of aspartame toxicity when they see one since other disease’s may be mimicked. The American Diabetes Association (which receives considerable funding from the aspartame industry), suggests that aspartame is useful in managing diabetes. Aspartame is known to interfere with production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter important in appetite regulation. Emerging evidence suggests that ingestion of aspartame can lead to carbohydrate craving.
Many individuals who reported complaints in Table 1 and 2 reported recurring symptoms after re-challenge with the product. In one study, nearly 2/3 of aspartame reactors experienced symptomatic improvement within two days after avoiding aspartame. With continued abstinence, their complaints generally disappeared. 6 pilots lost their licenses for unexplained seizures while consuming aspartame products. All had been in otherwise excellent health. They purposefully re-challenged themselves to be “absolutely certain” of the causative role of aspartame. All sought to have their licenses reinstated by such objective confirmation on re-challenge.
Timeline of FDA approval
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a chemist from Searle company who was working on an anti-ulcer drug.
Based on data submitted from Searle to the FDA, aspartame was approved for limited use in 1974.
A researcher from Washington School of Medicine (Dr. John Olney) revealed that holes in the brains of mice appeared after consumption of aspartic acid, a major ingredient of aspartame. This prompted the FDA to organize a Task Force (1975) to investigate Searle’s original research. One of these studies was by Dr. Waisman who did a study for Searle (1969) in which aspartame was mixed with milk and given to seven infant monkeys; five monkeys had gran mal seizures and one died.
The FDA discovered that when Searle submitted the Waisman study, all the negative data had been omitted.
Upon further investigation, the FDA uncovered serious deficiencies in Searle’s animal research to accurately determine toxic potential which overall, compromises the scientific integrity of the studies.
The FDA discovered that Searle researchers cut out tumors in animals that were fed aspartame and neglected to report all of them. Some animals were “reported as dead” but later were reported alive again. Investigators report they “had never seen anything as bad as Searle’s testing” finding their procedures shoddy, full of inaccuracies and “manipulated” test data. The FDA discovered that Searle falsified data from a IUD product which eventually was pulled off the market due to a lawsuit.
Searle later admitted that certain tumors were related to the ingestion of a breakdown product of aspartame, Diketopiperazine (DKP).
Due to all the above, a grand jury investigation of Searle was ordered by the FDA (1977) due to “concealing material facts and making false statements” in aspartame safety tests. This is the first time in the FDA’s history that they request a criminal investigation of a manufacturer. Conveniently for Searle, the statute of limitations ran out and the investigation was dropped. (FYI-Dec, 1977 William Conlon, one of the U.S. Attorneys in charge of the investigation leaves the U.S. attorney’s office and takes a job with Searle’s law firm).
1980 – Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld (recent Secretary of Defense through December 2006) vows to get aspartame approved (the FDA banned aspartame based on a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry in which 3 independent scientists confirmed that it might induce brain tumors- the Board stated that it “has not been presented with proof of reasonable certainty that aspartame is safe for use as a food additive.”).
1981 – Ronald Reagan is inaugurated and Searle re-applies for FDA approval to use aspartame in food. Reagan appoints new FDA commissioner, Arthur Hayes Hull who appoints a 5-person commission to review the inquiry’s decision. The panel upheld the ban 3-2 but Hull installed a sixth member and the vote became deadlocked. Hull then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor, ignoring his own internal FDA team and he approves NutraSweet for dry products.
1983 – the National Soft Drink Association says that liquid aspartame, when stored above 85 F, breaks down into DKP and formaldehyde, both are which are known toxins.
1983 – Consumer Attorney, Jim Turner of the Community Nutrition Institute, files suit with the FDA objecting to aspartame approval based on unresolved safety issues. 1983 – aspartame is approved for use in diet soft drinks. Hull later leaves the FDA under allegations of impropriety and takes a position with a PR firm for Searle.
1985 – Monsanto company purchases Searle and formed a subsidiary for the aspartame product ultimately forming the NutraSweet Company.
1992 – the patent expires on aspartame.
1990s-2006 -FDA continues to refute studies showing adverse effects (see European Ramazzini Foundation research) of aspartame.
1995-list of adverse effects submitted to the FDA (see Table 1)
1996 – the FDA removed all restrictions from aspartame allowing it to be used in all foods The FDA defines safe as “reasonable certainty of no harm”. Brain tumors and seizures in aspartame-fed animals indicate possible risk to humans.
So, is Aspartame “safe”?
This has been a topic of hot debate for many years. There are those who have very negative physical reactions to this product, and those who claim they do not. Our stance is that anything we put in our bodies has an effect, whether it is obvious or not. A healthy body is one that does not have pain, disease or some kind of physical issue, and our experience is that there are very few who can claim that. We recommend the avoidance of all chemicals and artificial products like Aspartame so that the cause of undesirable “symptoms” can be determined and corrected.
Detoxifying from Aspartame and Breaking Aspartame Addiction
Following are some steps you can take to detox from Aspartame:
Attend a Health Recovery Center, like Essence Recovery Center, who specializes in detoxification and a return to health through the use of holistic practices, including Orthomolecular Medicine, and the healing arts and sciences, or detoxify on your own by the following:
1. Discontinue use of all sugar-free products from your diet,
2. Eat plenty of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables for natural sugar content,
3. If you need sweeteners, use natural products like honey or organic brown sugar sparingly,
4. Drink plenty of water,
5. Exercise regularly, and,
6. Get plenty of rest.
About the Author: Peggy Huff is the owner and executive director of Essence Recovery Centers, Inc. in Asheville, North Carolina, a holistically based treatment center for all forms of addictions and afflictions. The core of the Essence program is based in Orthomolecular Medicine and the Natural Healing Arts & Sciences, so those who choose to can lead a healthy and addiction-free life. For more information, please visit their website at www.essencerecoverycenter.com or call (828) 658-8198.
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