By Bob Aronson Bob is the founder of this blog and the primary author. He receives no monetary or other outside support nor does he allow anyone to see or review his posts before publication. The topics are known only to him until they are published.
There is a blog making the rounds that insists that Aspartame (Equal or Nutri-sweet) the sweetener found in most diet drinks is not only dangerous but deadly. “Aspartame, A killer in Your Fridge” pretends to have evidence but it is all circumstantial and doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. I’ll explain more in a bit. The blog disturbed me because as a transplant recipient I know how careful we have to be to protect ourselves from any number of real threats to our health. Threats like skin and other cancers, viruses and brittle bones. Our compromised immune systems are susceptible to some terrible afflictions and we just don’t need the added stress of worrying about imaginary threats supported by “Junk science” and spread by rumor, innuendo and incomplete or inadequate research. That’s why I’m writing this blog. Let me start by getting right to the point. There is no solid evidence that Aspartame is any more harmful than the carbonation in your favorite soft drink. No Solid Evidence! There is anecdotal evidence but that’s kind of like hearsay in a courtroom. The scientific community rejects it. They prefer to make decisions based on real and proven scientific examination that studies foods, drugs and other items in a manner that leaves little or no doubt. The “Gold Standard” of scientific examination is the double blind placebo study. Here’s the simplest explanation I could find:
A placebo is the term for a dummy drug or a substance that looks, smells and tastes like the item that is being studied, but which has no active ingredient. It is given to a patient in place of the substance under investigation. Clinical trials show that between 30% to 40% of people will show improvement when given a placebo because they believe it will work.
In drug trials, a control group is given a placebo while another group is given the drug being studied. That way, researchers can compare the drug’s effectiveness against the placebo’s effectiveness.
Using a placebo helps find out whether the active drug is really active. It also helps interpret side effects. For example, if 10% of people in the active drug group report having a headache and 2% of people in the placebo group report a headache, then it is reasonable to think that the active drug can cause headaches.
If 10% of the placebo group also reported a headache, then it is reasonable to think that the active drug doesn’t cause a headache.
A double-blinded placebo study is where neither the administrators of the study nor the patients know which group the patient is in.
Blinding prevents different care or treatment being given based on the personal beliefs of either the doctor or patient. A double-blind procedure is used to guard against both experimenter bias and placebo effects. The blog in question is not based on double blind placebo studies. It is all circumstance and speculation and totally without foundation.
The “Killer in Your Fridge” blog cites Individual cases where a person or even several persons appear to be affected is classified as anecdotal because there is no control group and because of the high probability of coincidence. An example is, “My son got a vaccination and is now autistic.” To many that sounds like real evidence. It isn’t and that’s what the author of the “Killer in your Fridge” blog, continues to cite over and over again. It does not offer one scintilla of scientific evidence that aspartame is harmful. When you skim away the sensationalism and look for proof you will find nothing more than speculation based on coincidence.
Make no mistake, we are not endorsing artificial sweeteners. Just because something is approved as “safe for human consumption” doesn’t mean we should consume it. While my research has not revealed any real dangers in consuming artificial sweeteners it also did not reveal a single benefit. With that introduction here’s more detail on exactly what prompted me to write this blog.
A few days ago I got an email that included a post titled “A Killer in Your Fridge ~ Sweet Poison…A MUST READ.” Being as I regularly report on health issues the headline got my attention so I read the blog which at first glance made a convincing case for establishing Aspartame the artificial sweetener as a killer of thousands maybe millions of people. But something about the blog struck me as wrong.
I put down my Diet Mountain Dew, cleaned my glasses with a microfiber cloth and began to read the blog again. On my second, more thorough read I found what I considered to be huge holes in the logic and a lack of solid scientific evidence. You can reach your own conclusions by reading the blog at
A lot of what you read in the blog sounds quite convincing but upon close examination one finds that most of the so-called evidence is anecdotal meaning that the author points to one or two or even several people who contracted a certain illness and who also happened to be consuming aspartame in some form at the time. While interesting and even eyebrow raising it is not considered evidence by the vast majority of the scientific community because the cited evidence amounts to little more than very timely circumstantial or anecdotal evidence. That’s what’s known as “junk science” among true investigators that depend on large cohort (group) double blind studies.
A lot of negative charges have been leveled at Aspartame but there’s little or no real scientific evidence to back any of it up. Here are some examples of what can be found on the internet
Much of the criticism of Aspartame is absolute nonsense but some is based on a study conducted in 2005 by the European Ramazzini Foundation, which tracked the health of aspartame-fed rats for their entire natural lives. The study linked aspartame consumption with an increased lifetime cancer risk. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says aspartame is safe in doses of 50mg per kilogram of body weight. That means that a 165 pound adult could safely drink 21 diet sodas a day. The Ramazzani study fed Aspartame to rats in extremely high doses that ranged from 8 to over 2000 sodas a day…2000? Do you know anyone who even drinks 8?
To be fair, let’s look at a couple of other studies. Researchers from the University of Miami and Columbia University found that people who drink diet soda every day have a 43 percent higher risk of experiencing a vascular event over a 10-year period, compared with people who didn’t drink soda. Plus, this association held true even after taking into account known stroke and heart risk factors like diabetes and high blood pressure. And in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, French researchers found an association between Type 2 diabetes and self-reported diet soda consumption . Plus, when comparing the diabetes risk of drinkers of diet with drinkers of regular sodas, researchers found that diet drinkers had the higher diabetes risk.
But again, these studies are observational. It’s unknown if the diet soda is actually causing these conditions, or if people who are already at high risk for a heart attack, stroke and Type 2 diabetes tend to drink diet soda in an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle. Research on diabetes and diet soda consumption has been mixed so far; a review of studies from Harvard researchers published in 2011 showed no link between diet soda consumption and increased Type 2 diabetes risk.
While nothing can be considered 100 percent safe, aspartame has undergone extensive testing. With the exception of a few very mild side effects, aspartame appears to be quite safe. Those individuals, who experience problems after consuming aspartame, should eliminate foods and beverages that contain this sweetener from their diet.
The previous paragraphs pointing to the safety of Aspartame are supported by this evidence.
In 1965, James M. Schlatter, a chemist at G.D. Searle and Company, accidentally contaminated the tip of his index finger with an unassuming white powder. Later that day, a page in the book he was reading got stuck. He licked his fingertip to turn the page, and inadvertently gave birth to an entire industry, as well as a seemingly eternal controversy.
The substance on Schlatter’s finger, 200 times sweeter than sugar, was aspartame, the artificial sweetener known today by the brand names NutraSweet, Equal and Spoonful. Almost 50 years after Schlatter discovered aspartame’s incredible sweetness, disagreement still exists among scientists about whether it’s safe for human consumption.
In essence, aspartame consists of two amino acids with an extra carbon atom stuck on one end. Aspartame breaks down completely into these three components in the small intestine, and they make their way separately into the blood.
One of aspartame’s two amino acids, aspartic acid, is non-essential, which means the body can manufacture it from other raw materials. Aspartic acid is also a neurotransmitter, which has led to speculation that aspartame consumption affects normal brain processes, possibly causing headaches, migraines , or worse. Almost all dietary protein contains aspartic acid, however, and the aspartic acid found in artificially sweetened foods and drinks pales in terms of quantity to the amount gained through a normal diet.
However, phenylalanine, the other amino acid in aspartame, is another story – but only for the small subset of the population. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, which means the body can only acquire it through the diet. For sufferers of the disease phenylketonuria, ingesting this amino acid leads to a dangerous buildup of phenylalanine that can damage the brain.
Although the amino acids comprising the bulk of aspartame are harmless for most people, the scientific jury is still deliberating about that extra carbon atom tacked on the end of the molecule. When an aspartame molecule breaks apart in the small intestine, this carbon disengages from the amino acids and forms a single molecule of methanol.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is found in antifreeze and rocket fuel, among many other applications . Methanol’s effect on the body is similar in some ways to that of ethanol (the alcohol found in wine and beer ), but unlike ethanol, the body deals with methanol by transforming it into waste products that include formaldehyde, a carcinogen that morticians use as embalming fluid.
If aspartame delivers methanol to your bloodstream, it would seem like a no-brainer to avoid the sweetener at all costs, but there’s a confounding factor: methanol is also found in all sorts of harmless foods, especially fruits and vegetables , in quantities comparable to foods that contain aspartame. In fact, aspartame-flavored soda contains less than half the methanol found in the same volume of many fruit juices.
This is where the dialogue gets contentious. To some researchers, it’s clear that methanol is harmless in the small quantities derived from aspartame-containing foods. However, a study conducted in 2005 by the European Ramazzini Foundation, which tracked the health of aspartame-fed rats for their entire natural lives, linked aspartame consumption with an increased lifetime cancer risk.
Some researchers, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, found fault with the study’s methods, while other scientists rushed to defend it, saying that at the very least, aspartame requires continued examination. At the heart of the debate is the fact that in rats, as in humans, a large percentage of individuals will succumb to cancer in very old age. It’s difficult for scientists to say whether cancer in a very old rat was caused by lifetime ingestion of a substance such as aspartame, or whether the cancer would have occurred naturally.
It is also important to point out that rats are not humans and often what occurs in a rat study doesn’t happen if later repeated in a human study. The physical makeup of a rat is simply not the same as a human and while information gained from the animals may be helpful it is never regarded as proof of what will happen in people.
As the debate surrounding the long-term safety of aspartame persists, it’s important to consider the sweetener not in terms of its absolute safety, but whether it’s healthier than the alternative: sugar . Given rising levels of diabetes and obesity in the United States, it’s possible that for some people, a zero-calorie sugar alternative that carries some risks may still be a healthier choice than sugar. And in the meantime, new artificial sweeteners such as sucralose are flooding the market, which may or may not carry their own health risks.
There is one sure-fire healthy alternative to both artificial sweeteners and sugar, of course. don’t drink them. Try a glass of ice water instead or perhaps unsweetened coffee or tea.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently reviewed that 2005 Ramazzini Foundation study cited earlier. They found multiple significant flaws and concluded:
“The data on total malignant tumours do not provide evidence of a carcinogenic potential of aspartame.”
As with any health issue it is unwise to adopt the results of one lab or one study. When there have been hundreds of studies on a question, the cherry pickers will always have a lot to choose from. That is why systematic reviews are necessary,
Let me offer one more piece of evidence as to the safety of Aspartame. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/aspartame-truth-vs-fiction/ By Steven Novella September 15, 2010
If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.
Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.
I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.
There are also hundreds of websites dedicated to smearing this much abused food additive. One site, run by Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responds to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:
I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.
The statement that “nothing will ever convince me” is a huge red flag that someone is defending an ideological position, one immune to evidence or reason. Admittedly, in context it could be a clumsy statement that something is very unlikely. It would be very difficult to convince me that the earth is flat – I’m really saying that the existence evidence is overwhelming that the earth is not flat. But that is not what Dr. Hull is saying. She is specifically saying that she will dismiss any evidence that is contrary to her belief that aspartame is not safe on the a-priori basis that such disconfirming evidence is part of a vast conspiracy.
Of course, Dr. Hull also sells an aspartame detox kit, which might lead a cynical person to conclude that she cares more about selling alternative health products and stoking her sales with some unreasonable fear than about scientific evidence.
What evidence does she have for such a conspiracy? The argument from final consequences logical fallacy – big industry wouldn’t want it. It’s also not very plausible. Products get pulled from the market all the time when new evidence suggests they are not safe. Also, the final safety net for the consumer is legal liability. Class action law suits have bankrupted companies, even when the underlying claims were false. Imagine if they were true. Look how much the tobacco industry has had to fork over.
Now I am not arguing that corporations are all good corporate citizens or wouldn’t dream of sweeping some inconvenient evidence under the carpet. But I am saying that a decades long conspiracy among industry, federal regulatory agencies, the medical community, and multiple research institutions and individual researchers – all under the nose of the press and lawyers looking for big class-action suits – is implausible in the extreme. I am also arguing that we should fairly assess all the evidence, not just cherry pick the evidence we like and dismiss the rest out of hand.
What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:
The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.
Multiple reviews, going back to 1985 , conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries (how big is this conspiracy?), showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer , and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers .
Like all such research, there is noise in the data (but no apparent signal). There is no pattern of evidence to suggest that aspartame causes cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disease, diabetes, or anything else its critics claim. What legitimate scientific controversy there is comes from the animal data, mostly in rats. Here the evidence for a carcinogenic or genotoxic (causing changes in the DNA) effect of aspartame is mixed and requires careful review. Some effects, such as a dose-dependent effect on renal tumors, are specific to rats and do not translate to humans. Other studies are plagued by significant flaws, such as properly calculating doses (a big issue when trying to extrapolate doses from rats to humans). And still others show flat effects without a dose response curve, suggesting that a confounding factor, and not aspartame, is responsible for any observed increase in tumors.
Animals studies are problematic and have produced mixed results, but no clear evidence of a neoplastic risk.
A separate question is whether or not aspartame causes headaches in some people. While there is not a lot of specific data on this, there are case reports of aspartame triggering migraines in susceptible people. Migraineurs frequently have multiple food triggers, and there is a long list of foods known to be potential migraine triggers. This is not evidence for toxicity. So while evidence is lacking to demonstrate aspartame is a headache trigger, this is not implausible and not particularly worrisome. What I recommend to patients with frequent headaches is to keep a headache diary, rather than trusting to memory (and confirmation bias) to detect real associations. If there is a clear pattern between a potential trigger and headaches, then avoid that trigger.
Yet another distinct question about artificial sweeteners (not just aspartame) is whether or not they contribute to obesity by interfering with brain’s association between sweetness and calories. The theory is that using zero-calorie sweeteners dissociates the sensation of sweetness from caloric intake, so that sweetness will cause less satiety, leading to increases in overall sugar and calorie consumption.
The question of aspartame and weight control is a complex one, and can be approached from many research angles. Here is a recent review of research . At present the question is very much unsettled. It seems that there is no significant metabolic and no demonstrated neuronal effect from artificial sweeteners. However, people who knowingly consume diet drinks do tend to overcompensate by consuming greater calories overall. While studies of substituting aspartame for sugar in a blinded fashion show that calories are reduced, contributing to weight loss.
By my reading, the current summary of available research is that consuming calories in drinks contributes to weight gain and obesity, substituting calorie-free drinks (whether water or diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners) does help reduce caloric intake and aid in weight control, but there is a tendency to overcompensate by increasing other caloric intake. Therefore it seems reasonable to use artificial sweeteners to reduce caloric intake from drinks, but to be careful to control overall caloric intake (so no, putting aspartame in your coffee does not mean you can eat the cheesecake).
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.
A conspiracy to hide the risks of aspartame, however, remains a popular internet urban legend that will likely not disappear anytime soon.
Finally…this report from National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/10/24/163559533/aspartame-and-cancer-risk-new-study-is-too-weak-to-defend
Data Linking Aspartame To Cancer Risk Are Too Weak To Defend, Hospital Says
October 24, 2012 5:38 PM
Aspartame is a sugar substitute found in many popular foods, including diet sodas.
By Maggie Starbard NPR
We almost brought you news today about a study that appeared to raise some troubling questions about aspartame, the popular sugar substitute found in many common foods like diet soda. Note the key word — almost.
A study due to be published at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and released to reporters earlier in the week under embargo found some correlation between drinking diet soda and an increased risk of leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as a few other rare blood-related cancers.
But at 2:24 p.m. — about a half-hour before the paper was to publish — we and many other news outlets who had been working on the story got an email from the senior vice president of communications at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“It has come to our attention that the scientific leaders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital did not have an opportunity, prior to today, to review the findings of the paper,” Erin McDonough wrote in an email to us. “Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.”
Now, the paper still got , although the editor of the journaltold us that the reviewers pushed back during the editing process. They wanted to make sure “that the conclusion made it clear that chance was a plausible explanation of the findings,” he says. “The journal tried to ensure that the caveats were adequately presented.”
A co-author of the paper, Harvard’s , who sits on the of the ACJN, told us earlier today by email that “I do think this finding is strong enough to justify further study on aspartame and cancer risk.”
However, it seems as if senior scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital decided that the data weren’t ready for prime time. And all along, in the course of our reporting, the researchers we interviewed (who were not connected with the paper) had raised cautions.
“The results are really not that strong,” of the National Cancer Institute told us yesterday.
And from of MD Anderson Cancer Center: “I’m not convinced that this paper shows a relationship between blood-related cancers and drinking diet soda.”
of the American Cancer Society had pointed to inconsistent findings. For instance, the increased risk in Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was found only in men, not women. And regular, sugar-sweetened soda also seemed to lead to a similar increased risk of cancer.
And statistically, some of the findings teetered on the edge of significance.
The paper’s lead researcher, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, acknowledged to us yesterday that her manuscript had been turned down for publication by many other journals, including the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet and the British Medical Journal.
So why were journalists even covering the paper? Well, most of the experts we interviewed agreed with Willett that — despite the limitations — the findings were significant enough to justify further research.
As we earlier this week, Americans drink a lot of diet soda, and there’s some evidence that it can help maintain weight.
So we get it. Any evidence that there’s a potential health concern with something as popular and ubiquitous as diet soda has to be pretty solid.
As journalists at NBC , “the situation is a great example of why the public often finds science confusing and frustrating.”
We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.
Well, there you have it. The Benefit of my research on the subject of Aspartame. I think we should all avoid sugar and its substitutes but that’s up to each of you to decide. If you insist on using aspartame or the products that include it do it in moderation. That’s good advice for almost anything you consume…do it in moderation.
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 3,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at email@example.com. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
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