Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar. It is added to hundreds of products and there is a good chance you have consumed something with aspartame over the last 24 hours. Aspartame is used in soft drinks, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, chewing gum, sweets, ice cream and even multivitamins. Furthermore, you are likely to find this sweetener in most products labelled as “sugar-free”, “diet”, “zero” or “light”.
On paper, it is a great product: sweet and non-caloric, what’s not to like? And yet, it has been the subject of considerable and relentless controversy since its discovery in mid 60ies. In the recent years, more and more experts challenge the safety of aspartame and some even call for its removal from the market. There is evidence linking regular consumption of aspartame to weight gain (not loss!), increased risk of type 2 diabetes, vision impairments and a wide range of neurological and psychological problems (e.g. headaches, anxiety, depression and foggy brain). So how can aspartame contribute to so many different health issues?
Our body breaks aspartame down into phenylalanine (an amino acid, 50%), aspartic acid (an amino acid, 40%) and methanol (an alcohol, 10%). All 3 compounds appear to have negative effect on the central nervous system (CNS):
- phenylalanine reduces level of dopamine and serotonin (the so-called “feel good” molecules) available to the brain, leading to depression and memory problems;
- too much aspartic acid can cause over-stimulation and even death of the nerve cells, contributing to anxiety and panic attacks;
- methanol turns into formaldehyde, which is known to cause CNS depression as well as vision disorders.
Moreover, aspartame influences our metabolism. It appears to promote the growth of gut bacteria which are very efficient in extracting energy from food. In other words, these bacterial species process food stuffs that human body is otherwise unable to metabolize and make more calories available to us. This alteration of the gut bacteria is also associated with greater glucose intolerance – a severe risk for diabetes.
If you want to keep aspartame away from your diet, read the food labels (E951, NutraSweet, Equal, AminoSweet all mean aspartame), avoid processed foods and choose more natural sweeteners: xylitol, stevia, apple sauce or raw organic honey.