Posted by: kurunner | April 23, 2010

Chemical of the Week

This week’s chemical of the week is … aspartame.

I’ve been working on this post for weeks because if there is anything I’m passionate about it’s chemistry (and why we shouldn’t eat things found on a lab bench.)  I want to do a new chemical that’s commonly found in food each week, but I’ve decided to start with aspartame because it is everywhere.  It’s also one of the most dangerous food additives currently being used and if I could just stop one person (including myself) from eating the crap, I’ll have done my job.

What is it?
Aspartame is a chemical sweetener invented in 1965, also known as N-(L-α-Aspartyl)-L-phenylalanine, 1-methyl ester.  While aspartame isn’t calorie free, it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar so smaller quantities are used to get the same sweetness.


Aspartame was denied by the FDA 8 times before it got approval.  In fact, when it was finally approved, the FDA revoked it’s approval and determined that the company’s safety data on aspartame had been manipulated.  The US Attorneys Office began proceedings against the head of the company, G.D. Searle.  However, while the investigation was underway, the lead attorney left the case and took a job with Searle’s law firm.  Sketchy, right?  In 1980, the FDA set up a review board which found that aspartame had not been shown to be safe for use as a food additive.  A year later, a new FDA commissioner was appointed and overrulled the review board allowing aspartame to be used in food.  Want to take a guess who he started working for after he left the FDA?  Yep, he started working for Searle’s public relations firm.  Congress began to prosecute Searle for giving the government false information, but the attorneys assigned to the case chose not to proceed.  Not to sound repetitive, but they also landed jobs with Searle’s law firm. 

In 1996, the FDA approved aspartame without restrictions and without public notice.

Health Benefits
Although aspartame supporters argue that the chemical is useful in the management of diabetes, studies show otherwise.  Not eating sugar is really what helps manage diabetes, not eating chemically sweetened products made from aspartame.  Heroin doesn’t cause lung cancer, but is it really a good replacement for cigarettes?

Health Hazards
Numerous studies have shown a link between aspartame and brain tumors.  There are more than 90 different side effects from aspartame consumption ranging from headaches and dizziness to memory loss and seizures.  Aspartame is directly linked to weight gain and causes formaldehyde accumulation in the body.  (Thing of high school biology.)  More than 75% of complaints to the FDA are aspartame related.  Aspartame has also been linked to birth defects.  Sadly, the FDA must not be informed of any of these studies.  Their official position is:

Since it was first approved for use in the United States, the safety of aspartame has been questioned by some. To date, however, the agency has not been presented with scientific information that would support a change in our conclusions about the safety of aspartame. Those conclusions are based on a detailed review of a large body of information, including more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies regarding the sweetener’s safety.

Good luck trying to track down any of those 100 studies, though.  Their website turned up very little information of aspartame.  And, um, what about the hundreds of studies I found after a quick search on Google Scholar?

The Bottom Line
Aspartame is obviously bad stuff.  If you are wondering why the FDA would approve something so dangerous, remember that it’s a $1 billion industry. 

Whether or not you believe the hype on either side of the debate, the important fact is that aspartame is NOT food.  Aspartame is a chemical.  Apples don’t have aspartame.  Eggs don’t have aspartame.  Spinach doesn’t have aspartame.  Sodas do have aspartame.  Processed foods do have aspartame.  Candies do have aspartame.  I don’t think you need a scientific study (or goverment organization) telling you which diet is healthier.

I swear, it's my last one!


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