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The Aspartame Controversy

October 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Health


Aspartame“Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation,” said Saint Augustine. Now, over 1,600 years later and in a world filled with preservative-pumped food products, his words have only become more pertinent.

Aspartame’s potential toxicity has been debated for over 40 years but this popular additive – dubbed ‘sweet poison’ by skeptics – can be found in sodas, puddings, yogurt and chewing gum, as well as in 6,000 other products worldwide. It is better known as Nutrasweet, the low-calorie alternative to sugar, and it is approved for use in over 90 countries.

“There has been no credible, scientific evidence that links aspartame to any health-related problems,” says Susan Somerville, a registered dietician and program coordinator of Humber College’s Food and Nutrition Administration program, who trusts Health Canada’s (HC) approval.

However, hundreds of studies have been conducted on aspartame, both before and after its approval by HC in 1981, and many are contradictory. Some report that it has genotoxic potential – meaning it can cause tumours or cancer – but others have concluded that it has no such ability, especially if consumed within the acceptable daily intake (ADI).

Studies are consistent on one detail: aspartame is dangerous for people suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU) because they cannot metabolize phenylalanine (PHE), one of aspartame’s three components. When PHE builds up inside PKU sufferers, it can inhibit brain development, cause brain damage and even lead to mental retardation – a truth that fuels misconceptions about aspartame, as people are likely to confuse such side effects with the general population.

Conspiracy theorists claim aspartame may cause ill effects ranging from headaches to brain tumours, nausea to blindness, even multiple sclerosis. But “doses of aspartame required for harmful action would be very high and unrealistic,” reported a 2010 study out of King Saud University, Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, this same study concluded: “[Aspartame has] a genotoxic risk. Therefore, it is necessary to be careful when using it in food and beverages as a sweetener.”

Presumably in order to be careful, HC set the ADI for aspartame at 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, per day; in the U.S., the FDA’s is at 50 milligrams. This means, in one day, a person weighing 75 kilograms would have to drink over 20 cans of aspartame-sweetened soda (a can contains roughly 200 milligrams of aspartame) to exceed safe levels of consumption.

The fact that there is a ‘safe level’ of intake can be worrisome, but “there’s a limit on everything,” says Somerville. “Even vitamin C has a tolerable upper limit established for it and you could experience toxic effects after consuming too much, so it’s not just additives [that have ADIs].”

Ultimately, consumers must decide who to trust. And as Saint Augustine once said, it may simply be easier to abstain rather than attempt perfect moderation, especially in the case of controversial additives like aspartame.

Possible Side Effects
• Headache
• Dry mouth
• Dizziness
• Mood change
• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Reduced seizure threshold
• Thrombocytopenia (a type of blood disorder)


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