A Bitter Sweetener
Aspartame, known to the public as NutraSweet, Equal,
and Spoonful, has been the subject of controversy since it first
became an ingredient in food products in 1981. In 1985,
Americans used 800 million pounds of Aspartame, with an average
intake of 5.8 pounds per person. They consumed more than 20
billion cans of aspartame-sweetened soft drinks in 1985 alone.
A study of available literature on the subject
reveals that over the years more and more indications have arisen
that suggest that the public is at great risk through its repeated
use. Serious consideration should be given to discontinuing
the ingestion of aspartame until the safety or lack thereof is
For this article, the Complementary Medicine
Association interviewed authorities George Schwartz, M.D. and Mary
Nash Stoddard. Dr. Schwartz is a trauma surgeon and the author
of In Bad Taste: the MSG Syndrome. Ms. Stoddard, editor
of The Deadly Deception, founded the Aspartame Consumer
Safety Network and the worldwide Pilot's Hotline for reporting
adverse reactions to aspartame. We will also refer to a
comprehensive text entitled Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills
by Russell L. Blaylock, MD. We are grateful to these
individuals for their support.
What does aspartame do?
First, aspartame releases aspartate during
digestion. Aspartate is a neurotransmitter used by the neurons
in the brain. It is a type of excitatory amino acid.
Excitatory amino acids are normal and necessary brain chemicals, and
as such, they are allowed to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Aspartate, the principal chemical component of aspartame, is a
neurotransmitter and a type of excitatory amino acid. It is a
natural and necessary body chemical. Neurotransmitters cross
the blood-brain barrier.
The blood-brain barrier is designed to protect the
brain from the invasion of harmful chemicals. When normal
neurotransmitters such as aspartate and glutamate cross this barrier
in excess, they will cause poisoning and lead to the death of the
nerve cells within the brain and spinal cord. The blood-brain
barrier cannot discern the amount that is needed from too much.
So these neurotransmitters can build up undetected until a toxic
level is reached. This accumulation seems to be particularly
insidious in its effect on the developing brains and nervous systems
"The nervous system is designed to control the
concentration of excitatory amino acids in the fluid surrounding the
neurons, the extracellular space. The main ones concerning us
are glutamate and aspartate. The nervous system does this by
pumping the excess back into glial cells which surround the neurons
and supply them with energy. While this pumping system is very
efficient, it uses enormous amounts of ATP, a high-energy compound
that all cells in the body use for energy.
"If energy production is reduced in the brain, the
protective pumps begin to fail and glutamate begins to accumulate in
the space around the neuron, including the area of the synapse.
If the energy is not restored the neurons will burn up; they
are literally excited to death."1
What are the risks to children who consume excess aspartame?
The protective enzymes in a baby's brain are still
immature, and therefore are unable to effectively detoxify the
excitotoxins that enter its brain. This would mean that in the
case of a pregnant woman eating meals high in excitotoxin taste
enhancers, the baby could be exposed to these high glutamate levels
for many hours. It is not unreasonable to assume that mothers
will eat several meals and snacks containing various forms of
excitotoxins such as MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and
aspartame. This could produce a high concentration of
glutamate exposure in the baby's brain several times a day.
Also significant is the fact that the immature brain is four times
more sensitive to the damaging effects of excitotoxins than the
adult brain. Thus, following a dose of MSG, the baby's blood
level of glutamate may remain high for many hours. Since no
experimental work can be done on pregnant women or children, we must
look to animal research studies for some clues.
"In a study with mice and rats Toth and Lajtha found
that, when giving aspartame and glutamate either as single amino
acids or as liquid diets over a prolonged time (several hours to
days), they could significantly elevate brain levels of these
supposedly excluded excitotoxins. Brain tissue levels of aspartic
acid rose as high as 61% and glutamate levels rose 35% in brain
tissue over prolonged feeding... Humans are exposed to high
concentrations of excitatory food additives throughout the day by
consuming a variety of processed foods and diet drinks."2
Plasticity of the brain is important in the learning
process. Even when the baby is in the womb, the brain of the
infant is being stimulated by sounds, touch, and even light, causing
changes in the brain's structure in important ways. Babies
move and play with their toes, suck their thumbs, and react to
noises and music after only six weeks in the womb. All of this
stimulation causes the pathways in the brain to change and develop.
At birth the baby's brain chemistry functions
homogeneously -- the biochemical reactions occur evenly throughout
the brain. But soon after birth, the brain undergoes a rapid
acceleration in growth and function. During this period the
level of glutamine, the precursor of glutamate, rises very rapidly
in some of the areas of the brain. Glutamate helps to regulate
the development of the wiring of nerves in the new brain. As
the child grows, even beyond teen years, these developing
connections grow as well.
This process of molding the brain continues
throughout life, but the majority of growth takes place within 0-7
years of life. During these critical years, if unborn and
young children are fed drinks or food containing aspartame,
over-stimulation can occur.
It is important to appreciate that many of the toxic
effects of excitatory amino acids occur at a time when no outward
symptoms develop. The child does not become sick or throw up,
or have any behavior that would alert the parents that something is
How was aspartame approved?
Dr. Schwartz was asked to elaborate on a statement
attributed to former Senator Metzenbaum, now of the Consumer
Federation of America in Washington, DC who said, "The approval
process of aspartame has had a questionable history."
Dr. Schwartz: "When aspartame was first
introduced for approval by the FDA, it was considered to be a
sweetener, not an additive or a drug, and with a great deal of
lobbying, the discussions were propelled through the approval
proceedings, and the numerous case reports from individuals with
adverse reactions were ignored."
From Dr. Blaylock's book we learn that, "In 1975 the
drug enforcement division of the Bureau of Foods investigated the G.
D. Searle company as part of an investigation of "apparent
irregularities in data collection and reporting practices."
The director of the FDA at that time stated that they found "sloppy"
laboratory techniques and "clerical errors, mixed-up animals,
animals not getting the drugs they were supposed to get,
pathological specimens lost because of improper handling, and a
variety of other errors, (which) even if innocent, all conspire to
obscure positive findings and produce falsely negative results."
"The drug enforcement division carried out a study
under the care of agent Jerome Bressler concerning Searle's
laboratory practices and data manipulation. This important
report was buried in a file cabinet, never to be acted on by the
"Although aspartame-produced tumors in rats do not
equal tumors in humans, after aspartame consumption began, there
have been more brain tumors. In the years 1973 to 1990, the
number of brain tumors in people over sixty five has increased by 67
percent (National Cancer Institute SEER Program Data)."4
Is it proven that people drinking, or eating artificial
sweeteners don't lose weight?
Mary Stoddard says, "It's well documented that
excitotoxins like aspartame have the reverse affect on weight.
People drinking diet drinks and eating diet food will get more
hungry. The FDA no longer allows manufacturers of diet
supplement drinks and foods containing aspartame to label them as
weight reduction products, but requires that they be labeled as diet
drink or diet food. A study of 80,000 women who use sweeteners
were evaluated through the Centers for Disease Control. It was
found that they gained rather than lost weight using artificial
Why do pilots need to avoid aspartame?
Mary Stoddard explains, "In a letter to the editor
and in one article published in the United States Air Force AirMen's
News, it was noted that aspartame ingestion causes elevated spiking
on the EEG, resulting in grand mal seizures and blackout episodes in
the cockpit. Dozens have lost their jobs due to
aspartame-related medical problems."
How does aspartame affect vision?
Dr. Schwartz states, "Diet drinks with aspartame
release small amounts of methanol when the aspartame is broken down
through digestion in the small intestine. It is well
documented that methanol interrupts the retina and optic nerve
transmissions and causes visual problems. Even though the FDA
has thousands of cases of visual disturbances on record from
individuals drinking too many diet drinks with aspartame, there have
been no formal, unbiased, scientific studies done. Vision
studies need to be done."
Is there a known connection between increasing consumption of
diet drinks and headaches?
In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr.
Donald R. Johns reported what appeared to be a connection between a
case of migraine and the consumption of large amounts of a beverage
containing NutraSweet™. A thirty-one-year-old woman with a known
history of well-controlled migraine headaches began drinking six to
eight 12-ounce cans of diet cola sweetened with NutraSweet, 15
tablets of aspartame, and other foods containing aspartame
(approximately 100 to 1500 mg) daily. About two hours after
ingesting the drinks, she noticed stomach upset and a throbbing
headache. When taken off aspartame, she noticed steady
improvement and eventually the headaches disappeared altogether.
In the May 1988 issue of the New England Journal
of Medicine, two letters appeared from the following physicians
regarding headaches and aspartame. In the first, Dr. Richard
B. Lipton and coworkers at the Montefiore Headache Unit reported
that, in their studies using 171 patients, 8.2 percent of the
patients who had headaches were sensitive to aspartame. They
found that stress and tension also trigger migraines and other
headaches. Dr. Lipton concluded that "sufferers of migraines
or other vascular headaches should be warned to avoid NutraSweet."
If you are a person who suffers headaches from low blood sugar
levels, you also should avoid excitotoxins, including aspartame,
because they aggravate hypoglycemia."5
A group of headache sufferers who have identified
aspartame as the trigger setting off their headaches where given 30
mg/kg/day to study their aspartame sensitivity under double-blind
controlled conditions. Of a total of 32 subjects, randomized
to receive aspartame and a placebo in a two-treatment, four-period
crossover design, "18 completed the full protocol, and 7 completed
part of the protocol before withdrawing due to adverse effects.
Three withdrew for other reasons. Two were lost to follow-up;
one was withdrawn due to noncompliance, and one withdrew and gave no
reason. Each experimental period lasted 7 days.
Individuals receiving aspartame reported having headaches on 33
percent of the days as compared with 24 percent for the placebo
treatment group (p = 0.04)."6
Individual subjective evaluation of aspartame versus
placebo was shown to be statistically significant. It appears
that some people are particularly susceptible to headaches caused by
aspartame and may want to limit their consumption."6
Is there an aspartame connection to other health conditions?
In treating stroke victims, researcher Roger Simon
has shown that energy-starved neurons are infinitely more vulnerable
to excitotoxin damage. There are a growing number of
conditions affecting the nervous system that are related to
accumulations of excitotoxins. Excess excitotoxins can have a
devastating effect on the nervous system.
Dr. Blaylock states that a primary concern is the
possible effect of these powerful brain cell stimulants on the
adult's brain, especially related to the development of
neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's
dementia, Huntington's disease and ALS. The brain uses
excitatory amino acids as normal neurotransmitters, but there exists
a delicate balance of excitatory and inhibitory chemicals in the
brain. When this balance is upset, serious disorders of the
nervous system can result.7
"Those who suffer mood disorders seem to be very
vulnerable to the effects of aspartame. A study required that
40 patients with unipolar depression and a similar number of
individuals with a psychiatric history receive 39 mg/kg/day or
placebo for 7 days. The project was halted by the
Institutional Review Board of the Northeastern Ohio Universities
College of Medicine after 13 of 40 individuals with a history of
depression experienced severe reactions. There was a
significant difference between patients taking aspartame and those
taking the placebo in the number and severity of symptoms that these
patients with depression reported. Individuals with mood
disorders are particularly sensitive to aspartame, and its use
should be discouraged."
Three cases are reported from patients who had
episodic movement disorders triggered by foods or other components
of their diets. One of those cases told of rhythmic
contractions of the arms and legs that were triggered by aspartame.
Can seizures be triggered by aspartame?
In 1985, Dr. Richard Wurtman reported several cases
of seizures brought on by drinking too many diet drinks. The
first case involved a woman with no previous seizure activity who
developed seizures after drinking seven liters of
NutraSweet-containing beverages per day.
In the second case, a woman 27 years old had a grand
mal seizure after drinking 4 to 5 glasses of Crystal Light™
containing NutraSweet. This patient experienced twitching,
trembling, jerking, and hyperventilation.
The last case was a 36-year-old male professor who
drank one liter of ice tea sweetened with NutraSweet every day and
developed grand mal seizures after several days. He had no
previous history of seizures nor of aspartame consumption."10
Who else should avoid aspartame?
"Diabetics, people with hypoglycemia, people prone
to confusion or memory loss, pregnant women, the elderly, infants,
children, patients with epilepsy, liver, kidney disease, and eating
disorders, the relatives of those individuals who are sensitive to
aspartame, diabetics, and patients with phenylketonuria (PKU)."11
During digestion, aspartame is broken down into
aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Those with PKU
must restrict their intake of phenylalanine.
Where do we go from here?
Considering what is now known about brain chemistry,
as well as the now numerous documented reports of adverse reactions
to aspartame, it would be prudent to eliminate aspartame from the
Reading labels on food items is important but not
sufficient. Labeling regulations make it possible to conceal
from the public information needed to make good decisions about
diet. For example, there are some circumstances in which a
substance like aspartame or glutamate does not have to be shown on
the label. Often it is included under another term like
"enhanced flavors or spices." The public needs to be aware of
these problems and demand more information.
Russell L Blaylock. Excitotoxins:
The Taste that Kills. Health Press, Santa Fe, NM, 1995, p.
Ibid, p. 74-75, 78.
Ibid, p. 64, 71-72.
Ibid, p. 213.
Ibid. p. 198-199.
S.K. Van den Eeden, et al. Aspartame
Ingestion and Headaches: A Randomized Crossover Trial
Abstracted from Neurology, 44 (10), Oct. 1994, pp. 1787-93.
Blaylock, p. 215.
Reported by R.G. Walton et al. in "Adverse
Reactions to Aspartame: Double-blind challenge in Patients from a
Vulnerable Population," Biological Psychiatry, 34 (1-2) ,
July 1-15, 1993.
International Journal of Neuroscience. 76
(1-2): 61-9, May 1994.
Possible Effects on Seizure Susceptibility."
Lancet, Nov 9, 1984, p. 1060.
H.J. Roberts, MD. Aspartame
(NutraSweet): Is it Safe? Philadelphia: Charles Press, 1989.
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