On Dispelling Rumors of a Sweeter Death

A 12 fl oz bottle of diet coke.
Source

There are a large number of people on this planet.  Approximately 313,914,040 people in the US.  6,973,738,433 people in the world.  And I guarantee every single person on Earth could identify Coca-Cola.  This isn’t a shill, I swear; I haven’t sold out.  But today I ran across something that disturbed me, as a scientist and chemist, greatly.  This petition.  They are petitioning the FDA to make an official ruling to make it so the dairy industry – if I’m reading this properly – cannot add aspartame (or other artificial sweeteners) to milk.  Look at this bullshit excerpt.  I’ve added a definition as a hover-over to be clear.

Aspartame is a known excitotoxin that causes nerve damage or destruction from overstimulation of neurotransmitters. It has been linked to migraines, seizures, slurred speech, autoimmune disorders, and stroke. While the FDA no longer tracks complaints specific to aspartame, it was estimated that prior to 1992 between 75-85% of the complaints the FDA received were linked to aspartame.

Are people still that stupid uninformed about this?  So I’m going to take the time to write about it.  Let’s start with the basics: What is aspartame and where did it come from?

Aspartame was discovered on accident.  James M. Schlatter was a typical chemist, working in a lab trying to discover an anti-ulcer drug.  The year was 1965.  Safety was obviously a low concern as Dr. Schlatter claimed to have licked his fingers and tasted something sweet.  Seriously – had we not moved past the stage where tasting your chemical concoction was acceptable?  Upon this discovery, they named the substance – aspartame – and tested it as a sweetener.  Testing revealed the product to be 200x more potent – as a sweetener – than pure table sugar (that’s a chemical, too!).  When compared, gram for gram, aspartame and sugar as both approximately the same calorie content – but we can use 200x less aspartame.  Thus was born the “zero-calorie” sweetener.

The FDA sets very rigorous guidelines for what can and what cannot be in your food.  For example, you’ve often heard that there are bugs and rat hairs in chocolate, right?

FDA Chocolate Defects Allowed

This is an excerpt from the FDA Handbook.
Source

The FDA allows – for aspartame - 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.  To give you an idea, a can of diet soda contains roughly 180 milligrams of aspartame (about 15 mg per oz).  To give you a sense of how much this is, I currently weigh in at a 130-kg.  To exceed my acceptable daily intake, I would need to consume 37 cans of Diet Coke (nearly 3.5 gallons).  I don’t even think I’d had that much water in a day before, let alone Coke (cause I don’t drink soda unless there’s rum in it).  Said simply, the FDA believes that aspartame is safe for human consumption.

Over the years, many people have made claims saying that aspartame is unnatural and chemical – and this is what the folks on twitter using #Chemphobia are talking about.  The public (that’s you) doesn’t trust chemists (that’s me).  And it’s been going on for some time.  But let’s look at the argument.

  • Aspartame causes cancer.  No it doesn’t.
  • Aspartame causes migraines.  No it doesn’t.
  • Aspartame causes seizures.  Nope.
  • Aspartame causes slurred speech.  I actually can’t find a study on that…but I’ve never heard that claim before.
  • Aspartame causes strokes/autoimmune disorders.  Again, I couldn’t find a study (I’m only looking on PubMed).

I can see 58 studies on the safety of aspartame on PubMed.  I challenge you to find one where it notes that a normal dose (under 1000 mg/person/day) of aspartame had a negative effect on human health.  There are still 3 more claims I, personally like.

  • Aspartame breaks down into methanol and methanol is poisonous.

This is truth!  There is not a single word of falsehood in that statement.  The conclusion that is frequently drawn (aspartame is therefore poisonous) is not true.  Let’s look at a can of Diet Coke.

Aspartame break down

This is how a molecule of aspartame breaks down

180 mg of aspartame breaks down and forms phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and 20 mg of methanol.  The body is actually pretty good at dealing with low levels of methanol.  On the methanol – specifically from aspartame:

At low levels, such as those from ingestion of aspartame, the reactions leading to the formation of formate do not operate at full capacity and the constant elimination of methanol is more important in its excretion.  Source

You pee it out.  Your body goes, “I don’t want this” and you pee it out.  Quite frankly, there is more methanol in a bottle of beer than can be gotten from a can of coke!  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, yes – but the idea stands.  If you’re truly worried about methanol poisoning from aspartame, I recommend adding a shot of Maker’s Mark.  (In the liver, ethanol (grain alcohol) and methanol (wood alcohol) compete for the same enzyme with the selectivity of ethanol being much higher – in fact, the treatment for methanol poisoning is ethanol.)

  • Aspartame is dangerous to those who suffer from PKU (phenylketonuria).

There is actually some concern for this.  As a matter of fact, this is exactly why the FDA requires a label.

PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE
Source

If you have PKU, do not eat foods containing aspartame.  This is the same advice I give to my friends who are allergic to peanuts – don’t eat peanut butter.  The FDA requires this despite the VERY low levels of phenylalanine that occur from the breakdown of aspartame.

The argument stems, as best I can imagine, from the following:

Brain trauma or stroke can cause ischemia, in which blood flow is reduced to inadequate levels. Ischemia is followed by accumulation of glutamate and aspartate in the extracellular fluid, causing cell death, which is aggravated by lack of oxygen and glucose.  Wikipedia

And the word ‘aspartate’ here means ‘aspartic acid.’  I suppose this is the origin of the aspartame-causes-stroke argument, too.  But this phrasing, specifically, says ischemia is followed by a buildup of aspartic acid, not the other way around.

I worry that folks will never accept the facts.  I hope that reading this has helped some of your concerns.  I have an agenda – if you die, I lose readers and then my blog never makes me a dime.  I want you to live, I want you to be smarter.  Please – stop claiming that aspartame is a killer.  Moreover, the next person to send me this chain letter is getting defenestrated.

-N.Tesla

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6 responses to “On Dispelling Rumors of a Sweeter Death

  1. That’s a very good analogy between PKU and peanut allergies. It’s frustrating when people think that because something is very bad for a portion of the population with a disease it mus also be bad for everyone else. Gluten comes readily to my mind.

  2. Do you know how dangerous 100mg of phenylalanine would be for someone who suffers from PKU? I’m having difficulty trying to find out if the avoidance of aspartame is overly cautious or if there is a true danger.

  3. I’m 45 years old and have had migraines since I was 11. I have had to figure what foods might contribute to migraines. I realized Diet Coke seemed to start a migraine 30 minutes after I drank it. Regular coke helps headaches. My gut tells me something is very wrong with aspartame so I avoid it. Has anyone done a study linking the introduction of Nutrasweet with the rise in autism?

  4. I will do a more thorough search, but I can only see anecdotal case studies and calls for more research concerning autism/aspartame. If I find it, I’ll write an updated post. I did find this study from 2009 published in Epidemiology (In 2011, EPIDEMIOLOGY had an impact factor of 5.6, ranking 4th among 157 journals in the field of public, environmental and occupational health) where they looked at the rise of autism from 1990-onward. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Conclusions: Autism incidence in California shows no sign yet of plateauing. Younger ages at diagnosis, differential migration, changes in diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases do not fully explain the observed increases. Other artifacts have yet to be quantified, and as a result, the extent to which the continued rise represents a true increase in the occurrence of autism remains unclear.” Source

    Again, there’s a lot of public outcry claiming that artificial sweeteners are the cause of every problem they have. We need more research, but we also need the research refuting the bad-science to come to light.

    As far as your personal struggle with migraines, there are studies that conflict with one another. It’s difficult to understand all the factors surrounding the human body and as scientists, it’s our job to try and make sense. The problem with both the study I listed above (saying aspartame is not a factor in migraines) and the study I listed here (saying aspartame is a dietary trigger) is that both studies are quite small (one has 50 subjects, the other has 171 – which is a random number, even to me). A larger study would provide a more “truthful” idea of the problem.

  5. Pingback: Χημιοφοβία ή τα δηλητήρια που τρώμε! | greek skeptic·

  6. Pingback: Χημειοφοβία ή τα δηλητήρια που τρώμε! | greek skeptic·

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