“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Although these lines by Shakespeare refer to the triviality of names, when it comes to a play on words to camouflage the presence of food additivesthere is nothing trivial about it. If you think of sugar substitutes, for example, aspartame by any other name, NutraSweet®, Equal® or AminoSweet, will be just as sweet, but also just as toxic.
As implied by the latest name of aspartame which appeared on the market – AminoSweet, this is a non-saccharide sweetener obtained from amino acids. To be more precise, it is the methyl ester of aspartic acid and the dipeptide of phenylalanine, which is a molecule comprising of two amino acids joined by a singular peptide bond. In addition, phenylalanine is an essential amino acid and a precursor to tyrosine, a signaling molecule which stimulates the synthesis of the skin pigment melanin and certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine for instance. Known as E951, aspartame was introduced in Europe a quarter of a century ago, whereas in the U.S. its use was officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. Soon afterwards, evidence classifying aspartame as a possible carcinogen began to emerge andthe controversy as to how safe this substance is continues to date.
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The Bitter-Sweet Story
A carcinogenicity study which discovered that aspartame causes cancer, i.e. lymphomas and leukemia in male and female rats, was published in July 2005 by the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (ERF). Following this, a statement was released by the FDA in April 2007, declaring that the agency did not find substantial evidence to support the ERF’s conclusion. Moreover, the FDA stood their ground that the use of aspartame is safe.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) observes that a 1996 report showing a rise in brain tumors incidence between 1975 and 1992 correlates with the introduction of aspartame in the U.S. This was further substantiated withthe findings of a 2005 laboratory study which once again suggested a link to an increase in lymphomas and leukemia in rats that were fed large amounts of diet soda sweetened with aspartame. Nevertheless, according to NCI there were study design issues and inconsistencies in statistical result interpretation. For example, the rats in the 2005 study were exposed to incredible quantities of the sweet stuff, in some cases equaling more than 2,000 cans of soda a day. Besides, although the 1996 report was correct about the increase of brain cancer rate during the period in question, the rise really began eight years earlier than aspartame was FDA-approved and occurred most frequently in people in their 70s, who normally have a lower exposure to this ingredient.
Sweeten, Stir, Repeat
What behind this entire scientific commotion? For a start, it isn’t known for sure if aspartame – or other sugar substitutes, for that matter – causes cancer or not. Still, there is an open question that tackles common sense: If there are allegations of probable toxicity in aspartame, why use it at all?
It is known for sure that sensitivity to aspartame occurs in some people. Even the FDA acknowledges that migraines, asthma attacks, anxiety, depression and other reactions in the body can be triggered by excess levels of free aspartic acid. Moreover, this amino acid may cause fatigue and memory loss because it impairs glucose uptake in the brain. Joseph M. Mercola, DO, claims that in 1971 the Washington University’s School of Medicine warned the aspartame manufacturer that aspartic acid produces holes in the brains of mice.More than a decade later the manufacturer, G.D. Searle, started searching for a pharmaceutical drug to counter memory loss due to amino acid damage.
People with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare congenital disorder in which the body cannot metabolize phenylalanine, the co-amino acid that makes up the composition of aspartame, are also highly sensitive to aspartame. The American Cancer Society explains this with the fact that the accumulation of phenylalanine in the bloodstream blocks other important chemicals from entering the brain.In children, this can result in brain development disorders. This also accounts for the constant association of aspartame with memory loss, seizures, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in adults.
Stick to the Bottom Line, Sweetie
Keep in mind that there are always natural sweeteners at hand, like sugar, obtained from natural sources like sugar beets and cane. Sugar in its most natural form is turbinado or pure cane-based, minimally refined sugar, commonly recognized as Sugar in the Raw®. Honey is another all-natural alternative, although it shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 1 as it may contain Botulinum spores, thus increasing the risk of infant botulism.
If case of diabetes, the plant stevia or more precisely its leaf gives a natural sugar-like substance that is 150 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar and has no effect on insulin levels. What is more, stevia has zero calories.