Aspartame: A bit of truth

The motivation for this blog is that I drink quite a lot of Pepsi Max. It is easily my favourite drink. But something that people tell me all the time is how bad it is for me. Not just the fact that it is a cola based product, but because of the sweeterners, mainly “aspartame”.

There are an awful lot of things said about aspartame and how bad it is for your health and although I am no expert in this field at all. I think a lot of this information is complete nonsense. So in this blog I want to present some simple facts and figures, and try and dispell a very successful internet hoax.

So what started all of these worries and concerns? Well it started way back in December 1998. With an article “written” by Nancy Markle. Which said (in summary, to see the entire article, for some great entertainment, please download it here) that aspartame caused multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus. It also causes (the greatly named aspartame disease) which causes you to suffer fibromyalgia symptons, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, vertigo, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision or memory loss. Or perhaps you will be one of the lucky ones who just die since aspartame converts into a poison in the same class as cyanide and arsenic.

That is what the article said, and the basis for most of the information that people use to say that aspartame is bad for you, now for some facts.

Aspartame is known in the EU as E951. *ALERT*. An E number! That must be bad for you, all E numbers are bad. It’s not like E300-305 is good for you (vitamin C) or E700-E900 (antibiotics).

Three words, ‘Health and Safety’. I think we can all agree that Health and Safety is ever present in our society. There are some very strange ones (though not all are true, see this link, kudos to my friend Chris Smith for this). Yet, despite all the rules and regulations that exist in our country, and all over the world. This dangerous chemical which will almost certainly kill us manages to be present in just about all major diet soft drinks. Why is it allowed? Why is the medical community not up in arms? Hmmmm, something seems strange here.

It has caused such a fuss that it is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients, with over 200 scientific studies, all of which confirm that aspartame is safe to use. Aspartame’s constituent components and which, upon ingestion, breaks back down to include aspartic acie, phenylalanine and methanol. So if you drink a can you are getting a certain dose of each of these three things. But don’t think that only aspartame contains these things, 100ml of milk provides 4 times more aspartic acid and 2 times more phenylalnine than an entire can of a diet drink and a 100ml of tomato juice provides twice the amount of methanol (info from here).

Just about every product on the market has an ADI, that is the acceptable daily intake. The FDA has set this has 50 mg/kg for aspartame, and the EFSA has set this at 40 mg/kg. So lets quickly explore these numbers. An average can of diet drink (12 ounces / 330 ml) contains about 180 mg of aspartame (you need a lot less than sugar because aspartame is 100-150 times sweeter than sugar). So for an adult weighing 75 kilogram they would have to drink 17 cans each day to reach the EFSA limit, or just over 5 and a half litres. Which, even by my standards, would be very impressive.

I hope I have shown that there is nothing particularly bad about aspartame, nothing worse than any other food product. But what about the “article”, well let me breifly explain this. Basically this is a very elaborate hoax. It started out as a chain email (Nancy Markle doesn’t exist!) and it actually caught on. The many websites on the internet and the urban legend which has grown about aspartame is all based on this one piece of false information. In fact, a media awareness website has used the website about aspartame disease as an example of how to deconstruct a website to find out the true information. It is an interesting read and you can find it here, so I urge you not to take it seriously, and a quick google search will show you that it is not based on any medical evidence.

As I said at the very beginning of the blog I am no expert on this, but I hope I have provided some factual information that will help show you that perhaps aspartame isn’t as bad as some people make out. I conclude with a line from a 2007 medical review entitled “Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies” by Magnuson BA et al. which was published in ‘Critical Reviews in Toxicology’.

“the weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener”

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