Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners, Part 1

When people decide to lose weight, one of the first changes many make to their diet is to add artificial sweeteners in place of sugar. We have been told by the government that artificial sweeteners are safe, but are there hidden dangers to this additive? Let’s take a closer look at artificial sweeteners, specifically aspartame.

In an earlier post I have already published an article about the connection of Nutrasweet and brain tumors (Click here to read it).

Aspartame is made up of three components. Fifty percent is phenylalanine, forty percent is aspartic acid, and ten percent is methanol, or wood alcohol. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are both amino acids. Amino acids are naturally found in the food we eat, specifically in the proteins. They are the building blocks for our bodies, and help us build tissue and muscles. But, in nature, amino acids are not ingested singularly. Many types of amino acids are joined together to form protein chains, and that is what we ingest when we sit down to eat. In aspartame, Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are the only amino acids being introduced to the body. There is no protein chain, just singular amino acids. It has been found that aspartic acid (when not bound into a protein chain) enters the central nervous system in high concentration and causes the neurons to begin firing rapidly. Many times, it excites the neurons so completely, that the cell dies. High levels of aspartic acid have been found to cause headaches, mental confusion, balance problems, and even seizures. And the rest of your body fares no better. Outside the central nervous system, isolated aspartic acid has been found to accelerate diseases such as cancer, coronary artery disease and arthritis. Fortunately, the effects are cumulative. So, if you stop ingesting isolated aspartic acid, then the continuing damage will also cease.

High levels of isolated phenylalanine can be quite dangerous as well. Research has found that excessive levels of this isolated amino acid cause a decrease in the amount of serotonin in our brains. Decreased serotonin often leads to depression and other emotional disorders. When phenylalanine is exposed to warm temperatures, or is stored for a long time, it breaks down into diketopiperazine (DKP), which is a known carcinogen. It is also important to note that in pregnant women, phenylalanine easily crosses the placental barrier, and in children under one, also crosses the blood-brain barrier. Infants exposed to high levels of phenylalanine during the pregnancy and later through their mother's milk, have an increased risk of birth defects and irreversible brain damage.

The third component of aspartame is methanol. Methanol is commonly known as wood alcohol. It is a colorless liquid and is both poisonous and flammable. Long-term exposure to methanol causes blindness and death. Early symptoms of methanol poisoning include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal problems, chills, memory lapses, and numbness in the extremities. One particularly scary aspect of methanol is that at cold temperatures it creates formaldehyde. The EPA considers methanol a "cumulative poison", and recommends a limit of no more than 7.8mg per day. To put this in perspective, one liter of diet soda contains 56mg of methanol; over seven times the EPA stated limit. By combining several diet sodas, a couple of packages of aspartame in morning coffee, and consuming "diet" food during the day, most consumers are exposed to considerably more methanol than the 7.8mg per day limit.

With what we know so far, you may be wondering why the FDA would approve it if it wasn't safe. Instead of giving you a straight answer, I'm going to outline just a few of the events that occurred during the FDA approval process of aspartame. In 1965, James Schlatter, a chemist at the G.D. Searle Company, stumbled across aspartame while attempting to create a new ulcer drug. It was initially approved for use in dry goods on July 26, 1974. But researchers questioned the practices of the G.D. Searle Company, and the FDA put the approval on hold pending further investigation. A task force was created to examine aspartame. The ultimate report from that task force found that there were serious deficiencies in the research done by the Searle Company. The task force recommended that G.D. Searle face a Grand Jury for further inquiry in their testing procedures. In 1976, a second task force was created, this time finding the G.D. Searle Company guilty of faulty and fraudulent product testing, and knowingly misrepresenting product testing and findings. Officials at the Searle Company turned to Donald Rumsfeld, who had worked with both the Nixon and Ford administrations, and elected him as chairman, hoping to smooth the way and avoid criminal prosecution. In 1977, the FDA appointed U.S. Attorney Samuel Skinner to investigate Searle's testing procedures. After a meeting with the Searle attorneys, Samuel Skinner left the FDA and accepted a position with Searle's law firm. The FDA then appointed U.S. Attorney William Conlon to take Skinner's place. Mr. Conlon sat on the case and did nothing, until he left the FDA in 1979 and also joined Searle's law firm. In 1981, FDA Commissioner Arthur Hayes, Jr., approved aspartame for use in dry foods and as a tabletop sweetener. At that time, three FDA scientists came forward to oppose the approval, based on their in-house studies of the additive. Hayes ignored these reports and aspartame was approved. Arthur Hayes then left the FDA and took a position as a senior medical consultant for the public relations firm for the G.D. Searle Company. Ultimately, the statue of limitations ran out on prosecuting the G.D. Searle Company for wrongdoing.

So, are there hidden dangers associated with the use of aspartame? I'll let you decide. Next time we´ll learn more about Splenda and sucralose.

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