In the first of a new series examining popular misconceptions, myths and conspiracy theories, John Turnbull looks at a super-sweet “killer” that leaves a bittersweet taste.

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Mercola.com calls Aspartame in the title to an article:

‘... By Far the Most Dangerous Substance Added to Most Foods Today’ 

It goes on to ask: have you ever had any of the following symptoms?

Headaches, Nausea, Fatigue, Memory Loss, Depression, Insomnia, Weight Gain, Joint Pain, Memory Loss, Irritability and Loss of Taste

No! Not loss of taste!!

If you enjoy diet soft drinks, chances are that you’re already dead and you just don’t know it yet.

Sorry about that.  

Yes, Joe Mercola, of the self-described ‘most popular alternative health website on the internet’, claims over 90 different adverse reactions to Aspartame from the above ‘symptoms’ of life to more concerning problems like seizures and vision problems.

Over at Natural News, so-called Health Ranger' Mike Adams adds to the scary ‘facts’:

 ‘Diet sodas actually make you more hungry and crave sugary foods like, pasta and bread’

and

‘Population studies reveal that diet soda drinkers increase their risk of obesity by 200%’

I wonder if Mike has ever considered whether the arrow of causation might point in the other direction, there?

The tantalizingly named website Sweet Poison adds some disturbing Aspartame side effects like:

‘Bulging eyes, confusion, decreased night vision, phobias, anxiety, atypical facial pain and itching without a rash.’

How do I know if my facial pain is typical? Itching without a rash! Oh no! I itch without a rash all the time! Why won’t you give me a rash, Lord!?

Run by Janet Starr Hull, creator of the Aspartame Detox Program, Sweet Poison takes a fair and balanced approach to the issue and provides conclusions on the evidence provided by science.

No, you’re right.  That would be ridiculous.

What is Aspartame?

Now, I’m not a scientist, so I’m going to keep this relatively simple.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener around two hundred times sweeter than sugar. First synthesized in 1965, Aspartame was approved by the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1981 and sold under the brand name NutraSweet until the patent expired in 1992. Post-patent products containing Aspartame include Splenda and Equal.

When consumed, Aspartame breaks down into amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, both of which are processed by the body as part of digestion.  As defined by the FDA the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of Aspartame is 50 mg/kg, which for a 75kg adult is equivalent to around twenty-one cans of diet soft drink per day.

Where did the Aspartame myth come from?

According to the good folks over at snopes.com, the Aspartame scare originated with an email back in 1998 circulated by an internet phantom called Nancy Markle. This email linked Aspartame to multiple sclerosis, lupus, methanol toxicity and blindness, among other health conditions. Despite it being a complete load of bollocks, a lot of credible people forwarded it on to all of their friends and, thus, a conspiracy theory was born.

So called ‘Natural’ and ‘Alternative Medicine’ websites (like the ones mentioned above) eventually jumped on the bandwagon, despite the mountain of evidence against their claims.  Seriously… if Aspartame is so bad for you, how are millions of people worldwide drinking diet soft drinks every day and living healthy lives?

Is there any truth to the myth?

No, not really.

Too much of any chemical is bad for you. If you drink twenty one cans of diet soft drink every day, you should not expect to be healthy. This does not mean that Aspartame is toxic, or will give you lupus, MS or cancer.  It won’t.

If you are prone to migraines, there is a chance that Aspartame might trigger a migraine. Of course, if you suffer from migraines, there are about a million different triggers, so skipping your afternoon Diet Coke probably isn’t going to make a lot of difference.

If you have a particular genetic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU) it means you can’t metabolise the amino acid phenylalanine — one of the byproducts of Aspartame. If you have PKU, you should definitely avoid Aspartame, along with staples like meat, chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, nuts and milk.

Odds are you’d don’t have PKU.

What do the Authorities say?

Aspartame was finally approved by the FDA for human consumption in 1981, following seven years of scrutiny and testing. Due to pressure from activists and conspiracy nuts, the scientific evidence has been reviewed periodically since, with the most recent review completed in 2013.

Naturally, the experienced conspiracy theorist will have an answer ready to the FDA approval. Such as this from a commenter named, presumably unironically, ‘Truth’ on Fitday.com:

‘The reason you don't see this from the FDA, is that the FDA doesn't have a budget for attorneys that would even come close to anything that big pharma, chemical companies, food associations etc can come up with. Unfortunately the people running the FDA usually switch back and forth between running large corporations (like monsanto) and the FDA. That is a public fact btw. So not only can the FDA not afford to prove that anything is bad for you anymore with legit studies, they can't afford to defend a suspicion / caution against anything either due to the litigation onslaught they would be in. Trust this.’ 

Assuming any of that is true (it’s not), let’s look beyond the corrupt and ineffectual U.S. regulatory authorities to the rest of the world.

After reviewing all available studies and weighing the evidence, the European Food Safety Agency says that Aspartame is safe for human consumption. The UK Food Standards Agency goes on for five paragraphs in a very British way about how rigorous their testing is, then proceeds to say that Aspartame is safe.

A safety evaluation published on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website PubMed concludes:

‘The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.’

Final Thoughts?

This is a great example of conspiracy theorists shining the cold light of truth on a subject, then totally ignoring what that light reveals. Public pressure and internet-driven health scares have led Aspartame to be one of the most studied food additives of the last thirty years.

And what does the science say?

Aspartame is safe for human consumption, as far as we can tell. 

Neurologist and podcaster Dr Steven Novella puts it succinctly in Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction on Science-Based Medicine:

Aspartame is a highly studied food additive with decades of research showing that it is safe for human consumption. As expected, the research is complex making it possible to cherry pick and misinterpret individual studies in order to fear monger. But the totality of research, reviewed by many independent agencies and expert panels, supports the safety of aspartame.’ 

Whether you find my arguments above persuasive or if you think I’m full of crap, I encourage you to do your own research and make your own decisions.

And, whenever possible, Think for Yourself.

John Turnbull is also IA's entertainment editor.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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