If you believe the marketing hype, a certain calorie-free ingredient added to soft drinks can help you lose weight. But the truth about this chemical additive is less reassuring.
Researchers have raised serious doubts about what it really does to help you lose weight (sneak preview: nothing). And investigations into its effects on the body suggest it may make you vulnerable to Alzheimer’s and other neurological disasters.
Aspartame is the ingredient’s technical name. But it has long been sold under the brand names Nutrasweet and Equal. It’s the sweetener in most diet soft drinks and in many other products that Americans down in large quantities. Most people think it’s been carefully tested and is “government approved.” So surely it must be okay, right? Well, no. . .
About Those Weight-Loss Claims. . .
Aside from possibly giving you cancer or dementia, aspartame doesn’t even achieve its main purpose of helping people lose weight. Research analyzing how artificial sweeteners affect your weight have produced troubling results.
For instance, a ten-year study in Texas showed that people who drank two or more aspartame-sweetened soft drinks a day end up, on average, adding five times as many inches to their waistlines as people who never drink diet soda.iAnd a lab test of the effects of aspartame on blood sugar shows that consuming this chemical increases blood sugar levels and can make you more vulnerable to diabetes.ii
So while the ads for diet soft drinks trumpet the fact that these drinks contain zero calories they neglect to add that the weight-loss benefits of these beverages are actually less than zero.
Crooked Regulators and Lying Politicians
The story behind aspartame reveals serious weaknesses and outright corruption in the way food regulators judge the safety of the chemicals added to our food.
When aspartame was first submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval, the agency assigned an outside public board of inquiry the task of deciding if the additive was safe for human consumption. The doctors on that board unanimously recommended against approval. Later, an internal FDA panel came to the same conclusion.
Aspartame was approved anyway in one of the most obvious political fixes ever seen. A new president came into office, and a new man was appointed to head the FDA. Who chose the new chairman? Apparently the White House delegated the choice to the CEO of G.D. Searle, the drug company that owns the patent on aspartame. This drug company CEO was a powerful player on the president’s transition team.
Once in office – what a surprise — one of the new appointee’s first acts as FDA chairman was to grant approval to aspartame.
In theory, the FDA determines a food ingredient’s safety by way of tests on lab animals. This process is riddled with doubtful science – but the main flaw is obvious: Animals don’t always react to additives the way humans do. And aspartame’s critics argue that while the mice used to test aspartame possess physiological defenses that protect them from aspartame’s breakdown products, the humans who sip on diet soda flavored with aspartame lack those protections.
Chemically, aspartame is a combination of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine in the compound contains what is called a methyl group. This chemical group is what your tongue perceives as sweetness.
When you consume a soft drink sweetened with aspartame, the methyl group breaks off fairly quickly because it is only weakly bonded to the rest of the molecule.
Now, according to food chemists who work for the food manufacturers, the methanol you absorb is just as benign as the methanol you consume in fruits and vegetables. But what they don’t acknowledge is that the methanol in fruits and vegetables is linked to pectin, a substance that is extracted and often used in jellies and jams as a gelling agent. Pectin is natural and harmless – it’s the white stuff that lines the inside of grapefruit or orange peels.
When linked to pectin, methanol passes through the digestive tract harmlessly and is eliminated. But your body can’t easily discard the unbound methanol in an aspartame-flavored soft drink.
Problem is, unlike the lab animals that researchers use to test the safety of food additives, we humans do not have a detoxification pathway that converts methanol into innocuous formic acid.
Aspartame is Metabolized Into a Carcinogen
According to Woodrow C. Monte, who has researched the human reaction to aspartameiii, both human and animal cells possess a substance called dehydrogenase that changes methanol into formaldehyde, a cause of cancer.
But while animal cells have access to enzymes that turn formaldehyde into benign formic acid, human cells lack these enzymes.
Monte argues that the resulting formaldehyde can cause serious damage to the human body. Methanol can cross the blood-brain barrier, be converted into formaldehyde there and degrade the myelin that is essential for neuron functions. That kind of destruction can lead to multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other brain problems.
Avoiding this sweetener is the only sensible thing to do.