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Aspartame Vs Wild - Dr. Roe's Poisoned Foods Part 3

Daniel Roe
Poster: Daniel Roe @ Wed Mar 18, 2009 6:43 pm

Last time on Poisoned foods, I ended with a teaser about the artificial sweetener Aspartame (NutraSweet) and made the blanket statement that it shouldn't be used by dogs, cats, rats, or, I guess, you.

There's this old lore floating around which may or not be true regarding the Romans and lead pipes. Roman plumbers used to use lead because it was cheap and extremely easy to work with--low melting point, very soft, etc. In fact, the latin word for "plumber" is named after their word for lead, "plumbum." Lead is a rather annoying poison with subtle effects like infertility, anemia, and mental retardation when exposed at low levels for long periods of time. Some even claim that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of Rome.

It's a fascinating story, but it may not actually be true. The Roman people were exposed to a lot of lead, but the pipes may not have been to blame. Sucrose (found in cane sugar) was extremely scarce in ancient Rome, so they sweetened their foods with, among other things, defrutum, carenum, and sapa. These were basically all the same but sapa is the most concentrated form, and was highly sought-after. Roman prostitutes were sometimes even paid in sapa. The problem with these sweeteners was that one of the main components was, you guessed it: plumbum.

Cato (a Roman senator, philosopher, and cooking hobbyist) wrote about how sapa should be used in moderation--noting the agitation and nervousness accompanying acute lead poisoning. However, since it didn't actually kill anyone, and the health effects were subtle, their use continued to be very popular.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Organic Foods

Unfortunately, like many subjects on the internet with maybe a tiny glimmer of truth to them, google results for "Aspartame" are inundated with a shitstorm of nonsense. Most of this, of course, is propagated by morally gray competitors and cult-like followers of "organic foods."

In the case of aspartame, I believe the main driving force behind most of the FUD can be summed up in a single word: Stevia. Stevia is a "natural artificial sweetener." That's right, it's both natural and artificial. Mind-blowing, isn't it?

Like all things natural, it has to be better for you.

Here are some other things that are natural (and therefore "good for you"):
- Cyanide
- Arsenic
- Acetone (paint thinner)

Cyanide is a deadly poison found in cashew nuts (especially the shells). Arsenic is found naturally in soil (especially in Bangladesh--where it gives cancer to thousands every year via the groundwater). Acetone is a "ketone body" made in tiny quantities by the liver when you haven't eaten in a few days. In larger quantities, it is deadly-toxic to the liver and kidneys.

So now that we're sold on natural bull-crap, we'd better turn around and put some hate on heavily synthetic products like aspartame. Let's just find all the dumb-ass, nonsensical FUD we can and repeat it like it's gospel.


Unfortunately, this is the thinking that wasted a good half hour of my time today when I went to research this subject.

Aspartame IS bad for you. However, that doesn't mean 99% of what you read about it isn't BS put out there by Stevia salesmen and natural food ex-hippie failures to get you to switch to their products.

As an aside, according to this wikipedia article, among the patchouli-infused cloud-O-stupid that surrounds this issue, there was some sort of elaborate hoax related to spreading rumors around about how aspartame managed to get through FDA approval due to some mass corruption in the system. Actually aspartame did have a tough time getting though, but there was no actual documented corruption, as far as we know.

Of course, this begs the question: even if aspartame did manage to get through the FDA smoothly, does this mean shit? Not only can the FDA not find their ass with both hands, but they really only test what they can find in laboratories. Can lab rats tell you if they have headaches or feel lethargic? Is this some new hip music that I don't understand?


By whatever mechanism, aspartame does raise insulin levels. This causes lower blood sugar and increases appetite. Though it likely doesn't result in weight gain directly, it would definitely make it harder to exercise and lose weight. Studies have shown people who switch from regular soda to diet do not lose weight (or the other way around). This is probably why.

Aspartame mongers will respond to this fact by referring you to the recent large study done of aspartame and insulin. In this study, participants saw no significant changes in insulin levels. However, this is kind of moot, because all the participants were type II diabetics, who are by definition jacked on insulin and resistant to it at the same time! Other, smaller studies done previously show the correlation quite significantly.

Personally, I'm not a diabetic, are you? You are? Oh, okay, you may eat aspartame, but the other 92% of Americans will have to abstain.

While I seriously doubt aspartame products raise insulin levels high enough to cause severe hypoglycemia (life-threatening), moderate hypoglycemia (AKA hunger) is still not good for losing weight or resisting the urge to punch people in the head at random intervals throughout your day (it's harder for some of us than others.).

Naughty Bits

Aspartame, when broken down in the body, turns into four chemicals (by the way, the first 3 are all naturally-occurring):
Methanol -- The shit in moonshine that makes you go blind.
Phenylalanine -- The shit that is a cause of severe mental retardation in infants.
Aspartic Acid -- an "excitotoxin" that damages nerve cells.
Aspartylphenylalanine diketopiperazine -- May turn into a chemical that causes brain tumors.

Now, the question is: how are the above tolerated by the human body in the quantities included in, say, the standard 16oz Diet Coke. That's the question right there: Given that all these chemicals are bad, are the low doses ingested with every piece of gum or soda enough to cause illness?

The truth is fairly complicated, and the research (what little there is) states that whatever the health issues with aspartame, they're probably fairly subtle, unless you have a predisposing medical condition.

One of the problems with research is that poisons can work very differently. In the case of carcinogens, low levels for long periods of time can kill you. In the case of acutely poisonous materials, it's more about blood-concentration than total amount. The body can handle almost anything as long as it doesn't overpower the natural metabolic pathways, but once you get past those, the poisons can wreak serious havoc. It all depends on the poison.

Another problem is that it's nearly impossible to detect extremely diffuse damage. If 1,000 random and non-contiguous neurons die in your brain within the next 5 minutes, you might notice, but tests would reveal nothing--even if they opened up your skull and dissected your brain!

Keep that in mind when reading studies: They can only report on what they can quantify, and they can only quantify what they can detect with equipment. If a test subject says "Yo doc, I feel like festering putrid ballsack over here," the study may not have a standardized ballsack detection device on hand to verify his "anecdotal" claims. Therefore, that information may get thrown out--especially if the data is collected by worthless good-for-nothing grad students.

Let's start with methanol. Methanol does cause blindness and even death in large doses. The aspartame manufacturers claim that since there are higher levels of methanol in say, an apple, than in a diet coke that it makes aspartame safe by comparison. While, strictly speaking, there is more methanol in apples than Diet Coke, this argument discounts the fact that the blood level of methanol goes up disproportionately higher in aspartame-laden sodas than in an apple. This is because apples have pectin and fiber and junk that slows the rate at which the methanol enters the blood stream. In fact, much of the methanol in fruit does not get absorbed at all!

It's common sense: taking any chemical on an empty stomach will increase blood-levels faster--same principle. Does methanol cause problems for people who eat aspartame? I don't know. What I do know, however, is that it passes through the blood-brain barrier much easier after physical activity, which may not have been factored into the big aspartame studies.

Phenylalanine is kind of a mixed bag. Phenylalanine is a vital amino acid, which means it's necessary for people to consume at least some of it in their diet. For some people, however, high doses can have serious side effects. When fetuses, infants, or small children are given high doses of phenylalanine, it causes severe mental retardation. This doesn't actually occur very often, because the body is quite good at breaking it down. However, in some people, this is not the case, and they (or their children) suffer. The inability to break down phenylalanine properly is called phenylketonuria (PKU). In this rare but serious disease, blood-levels of phenylalanine can be extremely high. In adults, this doesn't usually cause problems... unless they're pregnant. Pregnant mothers with PKU need to watch their diet, or risk poisoning their unborn children. Children are regularly screened for PKU so they can be put on a low-phenylalanine diet until they grow up.

Phenylalanine is definitely okay and even necessary for the vast majority of people--not that it matters, considering the levels in aspartame containing foods are not really that high. Interesting note: Phenylalanine is also metabolized into adrenaline.

Aspartylphenylalanine diketopiperazine is a weird one. Apparently it could possibly turn into some chemical that might cause brain tumors. I call bullshit, this seems a little far-fetched to me.

Aspartic acid, on the other hand, is kind of a wild card. It is an excitotoxin, which means it does increase neuronal activity and, in high enough concentrations, neuron death. Not a whole lot has been studied with lower aspartic acid levels as far as clinical effects, but it is likely the source of the anecdotal reports of headaches (which are very real, and I've personally done double-blind experiments verifying them). Whether or not aspartame products raise the levels of aspartic acid high enough to cause damage, let alone significant damage, is unknown at present. What we do know is what it does in higher doses is scary.

So what?

In cases like aspartame, you have to go with simple facts: half of its byproducts are evil poisons, and there are plenty of alternatives out there. It seems aspartame fans and manufacturers are making an awful lot of excuses to try and keep people on the stuff. What a total waste of time: it's sketchy biochemistry and it's a totally unnecessary product attempting to supplant many that were already proven cheap and safe.

I'd recommend just stop trying to cheat calorie intake and use good old-fashioned sugar in moderation...

Woops, I forgot: this is America... Moderation is not an option, let's all switch to Splenda.

Keywords: Aspartame  Food  Poison 
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Daniel is Medical Resident from the southwest US. Prior to medicine, he worked in IT as a consultant, programmer, web designer/developer, and technician.

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