I know we’re already midway through January by now but since this is my first blog post of 2013, here’s a new year’s resolution for better health: stop drinking diet sodas. While they may seem to be healthier because they do not contain sugar, we should be careful not to forget to consider what they do contain.
What lurks in your diet soda is a low-calorie chemical sweetener called aspartame, And unless you like headaches, changes in memory and mood, blurred vision, neurological problems, or seizures, the question of why this sweetener should be avoided need not be asked. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists 92 “side effects” of the consumption of aspartame, and those are only the short-term effects. Sounds safe enough, doesn’t it? Just wait until you hear the rest of the story.
In 1970, one of the first studies on aspartame was conducted. Seven monkeys were given aspartame with milk over the course of a 52 week study. Five of them had grand mal seizures (convulsions), one died. Another study, conducted by the famed Dr . John Olney, found that aspartame destroys nerve cells in the brain and causes brain tumors in mice. Other studies also raised red flags regarding the safety of this chemical, leading the FDA to block its approval. A public Board of Inquiry advised against the approval of aspartame citing a “lack of proof of a reasonable certainty that aspartame is safe for use as a food additive”. A year later, however, the manufacturer G.D. Searle reapplied to the FDA. With the election of Ronald Reagan a new FDA commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., had been named, who then appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. When it became clear the decision would likely be upheld by a 3-2 decision, Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission to make the vote 3-3. To break the deadlock Hayes himself then decided to approve aspartame. The FDA commissioner later left the FDA under allegations of impropriety and took a position with Burson-Marstelier, the chief public relations firm for … you guessed it: G.D. Searle.
Due to the approval of aspartame in the United States – based on no more than three studies (p. 41) – other countries’ regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public health seem to have suspended any critical thinking and simply “streamlined” its stance with that of the FDA. So whenever someone tries to convince you that we need the government to keep our food supply safe tell him or her to type “aspartame” into a search engine and spend a few moments researching. They might reconsider after doing a little digging. In fact, they might even find a new landmark study on humans linked aspartame to a 42% higher leukemia risk.
There are two reasons for manufacturers to produce food and beverages containing aspartame: there is a demand for (sweet) low-calorie foods and drinks and the sweetener is cheaper than sugar. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, allowing for less of it be used to create the same degree of sweetness with fewer calories than regular sugar. In that light, we as consumers cannot let ourselves off the hook without accepting at least some sort of responsibility. We have been duped into believing that sugar is the root of all evil and now we find ourselves stuck with something that’s even worse.
And I say “stuck with” because unfortunately, this toxin is present not just in diet sodas but in other products, too. The best piece of advice if you want to avoid it is to always read the label of anything that says “sugar free” or “less sugar”. If you do, you might find aspartame not just in diet sodas but in dairy products, chewing gum, candy, tabletop sweeteners, breakfast cereals and (cooking) sauces, among other things. To add to the confusion, aspartame is often hidden in the ingredient list under an E-number (E951) or under another name such as NutraSweet or AminoSweet. Still, there is one fail-safe way of knowing whether or not a suspect ingredient is indeed aspartame: if it is, it will be followed by an * which will say “contains a source of phenylalanine”.