Aspartame: Diet-astrous Results

As a nutritionist who straddles conventional and complementary therapies, I attend numerous lectures, workshops, and conferences in both realms. I can generally tell you whether a gathering is one of conventional practitioners or complementary practitioners simply by seeing who’s drinking what!

Where conventional practitioners such as registered dietitians, nurses, and medical doctors are meeting, the familiar, brightly colored cans of diet soda, sweetened with the artificial sweetener aspartame, prominently dot the meeting-room landscape. Not so in a gathering of complementary practitioners such as naturopaths, “alternative” nutritionists and chiropractors. Bottled or filtered water is the rule here.

It’s an apt example of the conventional medical mindset butting heads with the philosophy of the health providers who are natural-living advocates. Aspartame, which goes by names such as Equal, NutraSweet, and Spoonful, is and has been the giant among artificial sweeteners for the twenty years it has been around. Almost any “diet” food out there, in addition to the diet sodas, will surely have aspartame in its ingredient list. Holistic practitioners tell their clients and patients to never use the stuff—that it’s literally poison. Conventional practitioners usually encourage its use. Many, perhaps most, of my dietician colleagues, for instance, consider aspartame, with zero calories, pivotal in weight-control programs. Their perspective is that it’s a safe replacement for high-calorie sugary foods that sabotage dieters’ best intentions.

“No, no, no!” shout an escalating number of health practitioners, professionals and laypeople. They point to ugly and debilitating side effects from the use of aspartame, including headaches, memory loss, slurred speech and vision problems. For years these aspartame opponents were but small voices muffled by the incredibly loud sounds of money talking. Under the ownership of the giant international chemical company Monsanto, aspartame thoroughly trounced its competition by using an unstoppable combination of marketing brilliance and limitless spending—along with tactics characterized as morally and ethically corrupt.

One critic, David Rietz, denounces Monsanto for plying “agency [e.g. Food and Drug Administration, FDA] officials with gratuities and/or very favorable future employment, politicians with campaign funds/PAC money, non-profit foundations with endowments, scientists with research grants, and the media with lots of advertising dollars” all for the sake of defending its safety and, hence, its ironclad hold on the artificial sweetener market. Monsanto sold its aspartame ingredient business last year to a number of buyers (including, by the way, MSD Capital, which is computer king Michael Dell’s investment firm).

The voices of dissent have grown louder with the advent of the internet. Rietz, for example, is the owner and master of one of thousands of “anti-aspartame” internet websites (www.dorway.com). Like so many other “anti-aspartame” crusaders, Rietz founded his website after years of battling debilitating health problems and finally regaining his health after discontinuing his use of the artificial sweetener. Examining why so many attest to aspartame’s role in scores of severe adverse reactions is beyond the scope of this article. But one thing is certain, despite what appears to be a concerted effort on the part of aspartame’s makers to negate the allegations of health problems, adverse reactions from aspartame are real.

This was eloquently borne out in 1996, when Ralph G. Walton, MD, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine, conducted an analysis of all the medical studies—164 of them at the time—dealing with human safety as it relates to the use of aspartame. The studies were separated into two categories: 74 of the studies were sponsored by the aspartame industry and 90 of them were non-industry-sponsored studies. Dr. Walton found that of the 74 studies sponsored by the aspartame industry, 100 percent of them claimed there were no health problems associated with aspartame use. Of the 90 studies that had no connections to industry, all but seven of them identified one or more problems with aspartame use. Interestingly, of the seven studies that did not find problems, the FDA had conducted six. Critics suggest that since a number of FDA officials eventually went to work for the aspartame industry, these six studies should be considered industry-sponsored research as well.

Knowing all this, if a person desperately wanted to lose weight and was prepared to risk the safety problems associated with aspartame, would it make sense to use this sugar substitute as an easy and effective tool for weight control?

Hardly! Dr. Walton, who has also studied the effects of aspartame, is emphatic when he tells me, “Probably one major contributor to obesity is the widespread use of diet products!” A chorus of non-conventional health professionals echoes his statement, which can just as well be read as a warning. The reasons are not simple; they involve complex biochemical reactions linked to hormones and brain chemicals.

Aspartame itself doesn’t have any calories, but basically, one of its ingredients, the amino acid phenylalanine, blocks production of serotonin, a nerve chemical that, among other activities, controls food cravings. As you might well imagine, a shortage of serotonin will make your brain and body scream for the foods that create more of this brain chemical—and those are the high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich snacks that can sabotage a dieter. Obviously, the more aspartame one ingests, the more heightened the effects. Simply put, aspartame appears to muddle the brain chemistry.

Nutritionist Susan Allen, RD, CCN, at Chicago’s Northwestern Center for Integrative Medicine, suspects that something additional is going on in many of her patients who have been using aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. Allen believes that when they consume them, the sweet taste of no-calorie sweeteners triggers their bodies to release insulin, even though there is no food to feed the cells. Normally, when we eat, the sugar in that food, which is derived from carbohydrates, is broken down into simple sugars, like glucose, which then enter the blood stream (we call it “blood sugar”).

We depend on insulin (secreted by the pancreas) to usher that blood sugar into our cells to supply energy and maintain normal blood sugar levels. The problem Allen sees is that an “insulin-sensitive” person who uses artificial sweeteners teases his or her body into thinking food is on its way, so insulin is released. But when the body discovers it was cheated out of food, it revolts by throwing a food-craving tantrum that can only be quelled by eating blood sugar food that will more than likely be high-calorie sugary snacks. “I point out to them how it doesn’t make sense. . . they’re trying to save themselves sugar but then they eat more foods that are going to raise their blood sugar anyway.”

Yet, the unabashed public acceptance of artificial sweeteners, namely aspartame, is fueled by the approval of a host of scientific and professional organizations, including the American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, American Medical Association and the National Cancer Institute. Is it any wonder that some 200 million Americans use this ubiquitous product?

Copyright: © Rebecca Ephraim. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2001.

Rebecca Ephraim, RD, CCN, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Clinical Nutritionist with seventeen years in media and mass communications. She currently serves as anchor/producer for the Chicago National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate. Ms. Ephraim is a columnist and writer for Conscious Choice magazine in Chicago and is the Chairperson of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) specialty group on Nutrition and Complementary Care. See her website or email her at rebecca (at) consciouschoice.com.

One Response to Aspartame: Diet-astrous Results

  1. Elizabeth James says:

    The web has almost no information about the dangers of aspartame including personal accounts. This is new. I did seven months ago. It barely does today. There are thousands of articles stating that all the conspiracy theories are wrong and that the FDA would never allow a dangerous product to reach the market. As a former sufferer of aspartame side effects, I am very concerned about this new method of debate – eliminate the voice of the competition and expect people to believe in the good intentions of the manufacturer.

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