Dr. Fuhrman Dr. Fuhrman

Dangerfoods: Aspartame


The other day, the owner of my friendly neighborhood health food store offered me a piece of a brownie. I declined because I had a piece of chewing gum in my mouth. The owner, who is obese and raves about the health promoting properties of coconut oil, responded: Yeah, go give yourself brain cancer.

This is the third post in the series on dangerfoods. Earlier posts in this series are about MSG and HFCS.

What is aspartame

Aspartame is a low calorie sweetener that is used as a sugar substitute in many processed foods. It is also used as a table sweetener. It is made by combining two amino acids (components of protein) with a small amount of methanol (a component of many fruits and vegetables). It is an artificial additive, unlike MSG, you cannot make aspartame at home.

Aspartame is one of the most debated ingredients on the internet. It is also one of the most studied ingriedients, with most scientists and most health authorities from around the world concluding it is safe. Is aspartame a poison that is responsible for all modern diseases or a healthy calorie-free sugar replacement?

What are the claims

Apart from all kinds of cancers, aspartame is said to cause depression, diabetes, headaches, infertility, sudden death and about every disease there is.

What is the evidence

There is plenty of evidence that aspartame, in amounts typically consumed, is safe for most people. Like with all foods, there will be people who have adverse reactions, just as there are people who have adverse reactions to apples. I personally often get a headache if I drink orange juice first thing in the morning, but I will not be writing an anti-orange website anytime soon. People that cut out aspartame usually start eating healthier altogether because they effectively stop eating many processed foods. That may account for them feeling better.

Recently, the European Ramazzini Foundation caused a stir by proclaiming that aspartame did in fact cause cancer in rats. The European Food Safety Authority reviewed their research and concluded the study was not very well designed and that there is no reason to reassess the safety of aspartame.

My conclusion

I am not afraid my past aspartame consumption or the occassional piece of chewing gum with 0.2 percent aspartame will cause me cancer. I think it is much more likely that my past junk food diet which was rich in potato chips and low in vegetables, fruits and beans will cause me cancer.

That said, I do not recommend consuming aspartame. Aspartame is about the opposite of the natural whole foods diet I recommend. I think that eating artificial foods on a regular basis skews your perception of what food is. It makes the step to eating other low-nutrient foods much higher. In one of the articles I read about aspartame, the researcher stated that everybody in the western world consumed aspartame on a daily basis – whether they knew it or not. That seemed ridiculous to me. I do not assume aspartame is added to dried beans or vegetables now. Apparently, I am an exception and most people really do have no idea what they eat anymore.

When I was pregnant I cut out all aspartame and started consuming sugar again. I now doubt that that was a wise choice. Sugar contains calories but no nutrients for me and my baby. It also raises blood sugar levels, which was potentially very dangerous because, being obese, I already was at a higher risk of gestational diabetes, which is a serious pregnancy complication.

It seems best to not use any additional sweeteners on a regular basis. Use fresh fruit to satisfy a sweet tooth, and drink water. Limited amounts of dried and juice canned fruit can also be used – but watch out: I find those just as addictive as table sugar.

Food is supposed to nourish you. The fact that it has calories is a good thing! If you want to trick yourself by eating more sweet foods without calories you mess with the basic assumption from your body that sweet food provides energy. Science has actually confirmed this: people who drink diet soda usually do not eat less calories altogether. They just make up for the missed calories with other food.

Take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Don't eat food which ingredients you do not understand, but also don't think that you are doing great just because you are not eating aspartame. Hundreds of studies provide no link between aspartame and diseases. Similarly, hundreds of studies show a clear link between diet, body weight and diseases. Focus on what you should eat, not on what you should not eat.

Further reading

ESFA: Focus on Aspartame

Highlighted science abstracts

July 23, 2006