Aspartame: a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Aspartame, introduced in the 1980s, was widely considered to be the end-all solution to the calorie-filled sugar that tasted so good. It tasted similar to sugar, but was virtually free of calories, and three times cheaper than ordinary sugar; diet sodas and other “healthy” versions of sweet treats began popping up.
Now it’s everywhere, in thousands of foods and drinks, and some are concerned that its health benefits may not be as promised—that, in fact, it may be more dangerous than we realize. A look at the history of aspartame’s approval and the studies that have been conducted may lead to the conclusion that it’s actually bad for you.
The Science behind Aspartame
Even when aspartame was first approved, many scientists had their concerns. Some felt that more research was needed to test for its impact on neurological functions, pregnancy and fetal health, and other areas where it could cause trouble.
Many, many studies have been done on aspartame, and the results are consistent. Of the studies funded by aspartame companies or those connected to them, most–if not all–of the results show no negative effects. The studies conducted by independent groups, however, nearly always found concerns.
In 1980, both an independent board of doctors and an FDA panel ruled that aspartame was not proven safe enough to go on the market; by the next year, however, under a new chairman, the FDA initiated the approval process.
Soon enough, despite its own research findings and with political maneuvering, the Food and Drug Administration managed to approve aspartame as a commercial food additive.
Why Aspartame is Bad for You
The concerns raised by the aspartame studies are serious. Three decades after it was labeled safe for human consumption, aspartame is the #1 source of complaints to the FDA regarding side effects. In the lab, aspartame has caused brain tumors in rats; others have labeled it a potential carcinogen and connected it with seizures, even in those with no history of epilepsy.
Three ingredients make up aspartame. While the body is familiar with them in other forms, the sweetener delivers them in such a high dose, without any natural mitigating factors, that it overloads your system. Too much of anything is bad for you, particularly in a combination as uncertain and potentially dangerous as aspartame.
The Environmental Protection Agency has included aspartame on a list of pollutants possibly related to neurological disorders such as autism, lupus, and many others. It may actually kill some of the neural cells in the brain. It also impacts brain chemistry by adjusting the levels of serotonin, which can lead to depression and other mood disorders.
Weight loss, the main reason people consume aspartame-laden diet soda, could also be a myth. The sweetener impedes the signals to the brain that tell you when you’re full, so you end up eating (or drinking) more.
A Light Calorie Sweetener Not to be Taken Lightly
In theory, aspartame is great: a sweetener without the calories of sugar, but with all the sweetness. The truth, though, is less sweet. Aspartame has notable health risks, and many studies have concluded that can ultimately be bad for you. Sugar contains calories, but the body can handle those in moderation. Aspartame is an artificial product with inconclusive evidence—err on the side of caution, and opt for natural sweeteners when available.