Aspartame: How Bad Is It, Really?

I make a habit of not drinking anything artificially sweetened with aspartame (aka aminosweet). (In fact, I tend to avoid “diet” drinks in general.)

I remember reading or hearing something many years ago that said studies showed aspartame causes serious health issues, when consumed regularly. In fact, if you follow the various “alternative health experts” (online and offline) and the medical-industry conspiracy theorists, the FDA and the relevant corporations are in collusion to keep the truth from the general public, even though the product is blamed for anything from migraine headaches and obesity to various cancers and neurological disorders. I never really bought into the conspiracy theory, but the supposed health dangers were enough of an excuse not to drink diet soda with aspartame in it. Besides, it tastes nasty!

(typical fearmongering)

(typical fearmongering)

I haven’t really thought much about this for awhile. But, then, a friend posted a link to an article (from 2010) that examined the issue, and it piqued my interest. The author is Steven Novella, who is a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine. He is also a proponent of “scientific skepticism” and executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blogsite where the article is posted. I point this out so that you know where he is coming from and to establish his “cred” on the topic. Sure, I would disagree with Novella on various other matters (e.g., philosophy and theology). But, when it comes to conspiracy theories and fearmongering about certain medicines and food additives, I identify with much of his skepticism and appreciate his efforts to disprove the conspiracies and allay people’s fears. In any case, I recommend you read the article, but if you haven’t the time, I’d like to highlight a few things from it.

First, a note about the likelihood of a huge conspiracy involving government and the “medical industrial complex”:

“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.”

Great advice.

Here’s a bit more on systematic review vs. cherry-picking of data:

“[Y]ou have to interpret a literature, not a single study. The results of one lab or one study can be erroneous. When decades have produced hundreds of studies on a question, the cherry pickers will always have a lot to choose from. That is why systematic reviews are necessary, and it is also necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of research.”

As it happens, just a few years ago, a study was published which reviewed all of the available evidence regarding aspartame. As with all previous studies going back to the additive’s commercial debut, the review concluded that no evidence supported the claims of serious health risks for humans. Subsequent studies confirmed this. As Novella summed it up,

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.”

So, what about migraines?

“[T]here 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.”

Alright. What about obesity? Some theorize that aspartame “dissociates the sensation of sweetness from caloric intake,” so the sweets aren’t as satisfying and people end up consuming more calories to make up for it. (This applies to other artificial sweeteners, too, of course.) According to Novella,

aspartame molecule“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).”

Bottom line, then, is that the oft-proposed conspiracy to hide supposedly dangerous effects of aspartame is highly improbable; and the body of literature about relevant scientific studies, reviewed by many independent agencies and expert panels, reveals decades of support for aspartame being “safe [for humans] at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”

But, I’m still going to avoid aspartame, ‘cuz it just tastes nasty….

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