Is the writing finally on the wall for aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in diet and sugar-free drinks and foods? There’s been a very effective campaign to keep the lid on a devastating catalogue of diseases linked to the sweetener, but in recent weeks we’ve noticed a few straws in the wind.
Some brave souls have put together a film, Sweet Misery, which documents "one of the most pervasive, insidious forms of corporate negligence in history", as a spokesman has put it.
And now academics are getting in on the act, and have shown how aspartame can lead to overeating. A study by Purdue University found that artificial sweeteners disturb our natural abilities to monitor calorie intake.
Not that any of this is revelatory. Government agencies have known for decades that aspartame is deadly. It was once on the Pentagon list of bio-warfare chemicals submitted to Congress and, in 1984, Dr Woodrow C Monte observed: "Methanol (one of the breakdown products of aspartame) has no therapeutic properties and is considered only as a toxicant. The ingestion of two teaspoons is considered lethal in humans." But his warning came too late. Aspartame had been approved in the States two years earlier as a safe food additive.
It took centre stage once saccharin was discredited after studies showed a link between it and bladder cancer. Aspartame was seen as a good substitute – and one that packed a kick for all those with a sweet tooth, as it is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Its rise continues unchecked today, especially as its patent has recently expired. Around 5,000 products on the market contain the sweetener, and the list is growing by the day, and includes diet sodas, fruit drinks, frozen lollies, instant breakfasts, chewing gum, cocoa and other instant drinks, supplements, drugs, and yoghurt.
Because it is a food additive, no post-marketing trials of its safety are needed. It’s not even listed as an ingredient on some products such as vitamin supplements. Even so, aspartame accounts for more than 75 per cent of adverse reactions to food reported every year to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some of these reactions are very serious, including death.
Despite these alarm calls, it’s been down to individual scientists to investigate the dangers of aspartame. Aspartame is a dipeptide (that started life as a drug for peptic ulcer). It’s made up of L-phenylanine (50 per cent), aspartic acid (40 per cent) and methanol (10 per cent). Some claim that phenylanine on its own is a health hazard, and that certainly becomes more likely if it breaks down to methyl ester which, in turn, becomes methyl alcohol or methanol (remember, two teaspoons is lethal.) If it doesn’t kill you, methanol can cause blindness. The US Environmental Protection Agency advises daily maximum methanol consumption of just 7.8 mg – and yet many cans of diet sodas contain twice that, and a diabetic using aspartame all day could consume 30 times that amount.
So what causes this breakdown? High heat and prolonged storage have both been shown to transform aspartame into a more dangerous substance. An interesting study linked Gulf War syndrome to diet soda drinks that were kept out in the hot desert sun.
The evidence is becoming too overwhelming for the authorities to continue to ignore this sweetener. It’s now been linked to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, migraine and headache, brain cancer, chronic fatigue and epilepsy.
Even the powerful groups that protect aspartame surely cannot withstand the tide for very much longer.
What Doctors Don’t Tell You – July 2004