Aspartame , also known by the brand names Nutrasweet and Equal , is an artificial sweetener used as a substitute for sugar in diet beverages and foods. We all know that. Regulatory agencies in more than a hundred countries worldwide have deemed aspartame safe and have approved its use. The FDA describes its safety as "clear cut" and describes aspartame as "one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved." So why does there continue to be so much research done on its safety? There will always be a nagging skepticism about the healthy benefits of chemicals in our foods and we are now beginning to learn about the effects of artificial sweeteners on our brains.
Aspartame has few fans in the medical community. Well-known physician and author Dr. Al Mercola calls aspartame "by far the most dangerous substance added to most foods today." Cardiologist Dr. Mehmet Oz cites a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine which found a link between an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and the consumption of diet beverages. There is additional evidence to suggest that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners may also increase your risk for:
- weight gain
- digestive problems
Does aspartame cause weight gain? New research indicates that aspartame stimulates taste receptors in your mouth, throat and stomach that sense sweetness. The brain reacts by sending a message to the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone important in the accumulation of body fat.
How does aspartame affect your digestion? Studies show that artificial sweeteners can increase the urge to urinate. Under the influence of aspartame, muscles in your bladder are stimulated (by the brain) to become hyperactive. Increased urination may lead to urinary tract infections, incontinence and constipation caused by dehydration.
Diabetes and metabolic syndrome have also been linked to aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. They signal those same sweet receptors and your brain, tricking them into sending your pancreas a false message which produces spike of insulin. Too much insulin over time can lead to insulin resistance which is a precursor of diabetes. Aspartame and artificial sweeteners may also be contributing to metabolic syndrome. a condition that includes diabetes-inducing insulin resistance, high blood pressure and too much belly fat.
Fortunately, the link between cancer and aspartame is not so direct. However, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have issued a report which concludes that the evidence that excess body fat increases the risk of developing cancer is much stronger now than ever before. That is especially true of the cancers of the breast, kidney, colon, pancreas, esophagus. So if you reduce your intake of aspartame, you will decrease your body fat and, in turn, reduce your cancer risk (not to mention other health problems). But maybe that's harder to do than it sounds?
There are alternatives to aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. Some may be used in practical ways such as mixing table sugar or Stevia, an all-natural non-calorie sweetener, in beverages such as coffee, tea and homemade lemonade. Honey may be used in baking. Another popular natural sweetener is agave which is derived from the blue agave cactus. But none of these really solve the problem of providing a sweet taste in mass-produced soft drinks without the side effects, do they?
So does this mean you should give up any foods or beverages that contain aspartame? The alternatives may be worse. From a previous article, you know my favorite soft drink is Diet Mt. Dew (even tough I have cut way back on it!). Mountain Dew is also available in the regular calorie-dense version which contains high fructose corn syrup (sugar on stereoids) or in a "throwback" version made with natural sugar. Of the three, I guess the diet one still makes the most sense. I'd recommend, though, that limiting consumption to 12 ounces a day would help keep the doctor away. Also, I've been avoiding foods with aspartame as much as possible. Like sugar-free chocolate fudge pudding. Until new research suggests otherwise, I guess the old adage, "everything in moderation" should also apply to aspartame. That's just swell .