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Sweeteners Decoding Myth

14 October 2009 1,498 views No Comment

From chewing gum to diet soda, aspartame and other low-calorie artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous in food and drink favourites. While the addition of aspartame and other sugar substitutes has garnered extreme controversy over the years, there’s still overwhelming scientific evidence indicating that aspartame is harmless, according to government recommendations.

But surfing the Internet seems to reveal a different story. Much of this can be blamed on “Dr.” Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible World Health International, an organization trying to cut out aspartame use. Martini claims that this “toxic” substance can cause countless health problems, including brain tumours, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, seizures and lupus. However, these allegations are not supported by scientific evidence.

In fact, respected scientific advisory committees worldwide, including the US Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, all agree that aspartame is perfectly safe. Before any food additive is introduced to the market, it must undergo extensive safety testing and scrutiny by official regulatory bodies.

“We have regulatory systems, and substances are not just randomly put on the market,” says Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society. “The path until something gets approved as an additive is a long and arduous one.”

Aspartame was no exception, and has also been subject to continuous safety evaluation through laboratory studies in animals and clinical studies in humans. Aspartame’s Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), established by the FDA, is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, which correlates roughly to twenty cans of diet soda or 97 packets of sweetener per day. Not surprisingly, actual average daily consumption of the substance is much less.

This is not to say that aspartame will always be safe for every individual.

“There is the possibility of someone having an adverse reaction, in the same way that you can have an adverse reaction to strawberries or fish,” says Schwarc. However, “your chance of having an adverse reaction to some natural food is a lot greater than your chance of having a reaction to aspartame, because that at least has been tested.”

The most common reaction reported has been headaches, but that has been quite rare compared to unfavourable effects caused by other chemicals.

“If you have such a reaction, you just stay away from it,” says Schwarcz.

Adverse reactions are often blamed on methanol, which combines with amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid to form aspartame. The formic acid metabolite of methanol is indeed toxic in high concentrations, but the dose derived from average aspartame consumption levels is much too low to have any negative impact on health. Interestingly, methanol is also found in common foods including fruits, vegetables, and juices, but the amount of methanol that is liberated when you ingest aspartame is less than what you get in many of these natural foods.

For the small proportion of the population affected by phenylketonuria, a hereditary condition characterized by an inability to metabolize phenylalanine, this component of aspartame is indeed dangerous, as it can accumulate and cause brain damage. However, healthy individuals do not face these risks from phenylalanine.

Through years of debate over aspartame’s safety, scientific research and evaluation by reputable regulatory bodies has dispelled myths of aspartame toxicity. When consumed in amounts recommended by the FDA, aspartame is safe for the general population. Next time you see it on a food label, don’t be concerned – just try not to put more than 97 packets of sweetener into your morning coffee.

Janet McMullen

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