Aspartame is a sugar substitute that has no calories and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Sounds too good to be true, right? That is because it probably is. Aspartame was discovered in the seventies by a scientist who was trying to create a drug to create ulcers. He combined two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, together, and found it tasted sweet. Amino acids are found naturally in foods all the time, but these two do not bind together without chemical manipulation. You will not find aspartame in anything that was not made in a factory or by synthetic means.
Where did aspartame come from?
Aspartame was allowed for use in solid foods in the eighties, followed shortly by approval for drinks. Hello, Diet Coke. It is now used in over 6000 products. Aspartame is the primary sweetener in low calorie or zero-calorie soft drinks, like diet sodas, and is also found in hundreds of different foods, including yogurts, cereal, flavored water, chewing gum, and pasta sauces. Most “sugar-free” or “diet” foods contain aspartame, which can be listed as NutriSweet, AminoSweet, Equal, or Splenda.
Why is it bad?
While it sounds like a wonderful alternative to sugar, Aspartame has been getting a lot of negative attention since it was first legalized in the United States. When you ingest it, the components of aspartame work like neurotransmitters, or molecules that signal neurons in your brain that control the rest of your body. Aspartame signals the body that it is receiving sugar, so the body responds to digest that sugar by releasing insulin for sugar breakdown. However, because the body is not actually receiving sugar, it is looking to process something that isn’t there. As a result, the body craves more sugar, because it now thinks it needs it. Therefore, you start to crave more sugar, or more aspartame, in order to sooth that lack of nutrients.
Cancer, Depression, and Weight Gain
Aspartame has also been linked to cancer growth in rats. This is thought to be due to the way the false sweetness of aspartame causes the overexcitement of neurons to signal cellular reactions. When the cells become overactive, they may overwork themselves, and have a higher chance of becoming damaged. These damaged cells then continue to multiply, and cause tumor growth and damage to the surrounding cells. Because aspartame is not a molecule the body would normally encounter in nature, the body has no clue how to handle it.
In addition to potentially causing cancerous growth, aspartame has been linked to up to 92 physical side effects. One study found that when depressed patients were given an aspartame pill, their symptoms of depression worsened or did not improve, even with treatment.
Because of its makeup, aspartame is not detectable in the blood, so it is difficult to diagnose a toxic overload of it. However, the US Food and Drug Administration attributes migraines, uncontrollable blood sugar, and weight gain to regular ingestion of aspartame. In fact, one study found that regularly drinking two diet sodas a day caused a 500% increase in waist circumference, and those who drink diet soda regularly are more likely to gain weight each year than those who do not.
What can I do?
If, like me, you are an avid gum chewer and diet soda drinker, this new can be daunting. I recently undertook a project for an immersion journalism class to cut as many chemical additives and artificial sweeteners from my diet as possible for one month, and write about the experience. I am only on day 2, and I’ll admit, I craved the Diet Coke and packaged foods throughout most of my classes today (but, it did keep me awake!). I looked up some information on aspartame withdrawal (which apparently is a thing) and many experts say it can take two weeks to thirty days to completely withdraw from aspartame without symptoms. And I’ll tell you, so far it has sucked. But because I told my professor I would write a paper on it, and because the research I did for writing this post scared the crap out of me, I am going to stick with it, and I encourage you to try it as well. But be prepared, the symptoms of withdrawal include lethargy, headache, nausea, and tremors.