Aspartame, is it to blame? The jury is still out on that one. When I was in middle school or high school, I started getting headaches from sugar, even the smallest Starburst would leave my head throbbing for hours. I’d say this was probably when I started drinking diet soda instead of regular, but I still didn’t have soda very often. In college I became a big fan of the diet soda, I could get 36 ounces of sweet, fizziness for 50 cents and make a boring class a little more fun…or at least less boring. There is something about having something to snack or sip on that makes time go by more quickly. It cured my upset tummy, kept me awake to study (or watch TV), and it didn’t hold a single calorie. It was like medicine. When we were kids the only soda Mom would let us have was Fresca, and that was on the rare occasion. My roommate and I would take out a 12 pack in one night….a twelve pack of Fresca. And Crystal Light? It was like Kool-Aid without the sugar, we made huge pitchers everyday and sucked it down like it was water.
When I was started with the Zone diet a few years ago, I began using some of the other ‘sugar free’ products because it allowed me to eat something sweet without the added carbs. Sugar free lattes, chocolate, Zone bars, it was a win-win. But then I heard something that made me think again… I don’t remember where I heard it, or if the statistic was true, but it got my attention. I heard that 1 in 10 people react to sugar substitutes the same as sugar, especially if that person is more prone to Diabetes. Like I said, I do not remember where I got this statistic, it was just the first thing that got me thinking about the affect of sugar substitutes. There is a history of Diabetes in my family, so this got my attention, and diet soda had always left me feeling hungry, so I had more concern. I didn’t believe it until I went for 2 or 3 weeks without any diet or regular soda and then had a few swigs of diet. Within 15-20 minutes I felt the same sting of a headache that I get from sugar, and the same grogginess a half hour later that comes after a insulin spike and crash. Now, is this scientific evidence? Not at all, but it was enough evidence for me to cut out the diet soda and other products made with sugar substitutes.
So what is that sweet, zero-calorie treat that finds its way into everything from baked goods to medicine? If you’d like to read the entire article on the history of aspartame go to http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/data/244/Nill,_Ashley_-_The_History_of_Aspartame.html#fn11 If not, I have summarized the article to the best of my abilities for your reading pleasure.
It’s nothing new, sugar substitutes have been around since 1879, when 2 John Hopkins scientists were looking for a wonder drug created saccharine instead. Saccharine is a non-nutritive coal-tar derivative that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. By 1907 saccharine was regularly used as a sweetener in canned foods, and by 1912 it had been banned from use as a food additive. It remained unsafe until sugar shortages in WWI that prompted the FDA to suddenly declare it safe again. Through the 1950’s, the use of saccharin continued to increase, all the while consumers continued to be concerned about the product’s adverse affects. In the 50’s a sweetening tablet designed for diabetics, cyclamate, raised more concern over the safety of saccharine. In 1951, diet soda was introduced to a country obsessed with staying thin and eating sweets. In 1963 Sweet and Low became the most popular sugar substitute, used in canned goods, bacon, baked goods, toothpaste, mouthwash, lipstick, cereal, diet, and non diet soda. By 1967 diet soda sales had doubled since ’63 and the FDA recommended no more than 3500 mg of cyclamate/day, the equivalent of about 10 cans of soda. The FDA also released a report that established that the sweetener was not a weight reducing aide. Although it was still popular, in 1970, cyclamate was banned by the FDA because it was found that it caused brain tumors in lab rats. Seven years later, a Canadian study linked saccharin to bladder cancer in lab rats and the FDA banned it’s use as well. Buuuuut….Congress overruled the ban and saccharin was still okay for human consumption in their book. (What was not good enough for rats was good enough for humans!) Although Congress overruled the ban, the study still hurt the reputation of saccharine, (thank goodness the public was still bothered by the fact that they were eating something that was not fit for rats to eat!)
At the heart of the saccharin consumption were the soda companies, using 75% of U.S. produced saccharin, who were undoubtedly worried about the reputation of the key ingredient in their soda. Meanwhile things were looking up for Searle, the patent owner of Aspartame, a sweet, zero calorie mixture of asparatic acid and phenylaline. Aspartame had been created in 1965, but Searle had not sought to get it patented as a food additive until 1973. In ’74 it was given limited approval by the FDA. Concerns were brought forth by Dr. John W. Olney, who had performed research about the effects of certain amino adis, like those used in Aspartame, in the brain of animals. He objected the use of Aspartame in foods, especially those consumed by children. He research lead him to believe that it might cause brain damage resulting in intellectual disabilities, endocrine dysfunction, or both and people with PKU.
These concerns lead to a hearing, but before the hearing, results from Searle’s research on aspartame needed to be review due to “Sloppy” research and “different discrepancies of different kinds.” After 2 years, it was said that the tests were authentic, but the questions about Searle’s research competence had not subsided. Searle had done a study on monkeys that had been a faulty study, it was said to have many deviations from standard research practice and was labeled inadequate and incomplete. In another study on hamsters, Searle was accused by the Department of Health to be falsifying data. Although none of these tests results had anything to do with whether or not aspartame is safe as a food additive…it sure makes me wonder what all of these faulty tests were trying to hide.
Finally, in 1981 the FDA approved aspartame as a food additive, and soon after it was approved as an inactive ingredient in medication and began replacing saccharin in diet soda and soft drinks. Aspartame later began using Equal and Nutrasweet as brand names.
Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse at the history of sugar substitutes, I want you to decide for yourself as to whether or not it is something you want to consume. Because no scientific evidence has been made against aspartame, I am not going to go on record saying it is going to have adverse affects on our health. I am a big fan of science, but I am also a big fan of common sense, and my common sense tells me that something that has had this much debate over its safety makes me suspicious. Furthermore, my belief that we should be eating the foods that our primal ancestors would categorize as food, prompts me to cut aspartame, or any artificial sweetener from my diet.
There are millions of articles out there on the internet linking aspartame to a number of ailments, but the scientific evidence is lacking so far. I am waiting for the day that someone discovers that artificial sweeteners are toxic to the human body, but until then I will not risk my body as a scientific experiment. This is my opinion, I want you to make your own. I want you to decide for yourself whether or not artificial sweeteners are the kind of fuel you want for your body.
For those of you who would like an alternative to the soda that keeps you alive throughout the afternoon, try some carbonated water with a little lemon or fruit juice, or unsweetened tea for some caffeine. There are multiple kinds of flavored carbonated waters out there, but most of them contain aspartame or sugar, seek the bottle that says “Ingredients: carbonated water.” That’s the one to buy! For you Crystal Lite drinkers, get yourself a fancy new water bottle and fill it with plain, old water. Add some lemon or frozen berries if you’d like something more exciting, but hydrate yourself with that which actually hydrates you, WATER!