Sweet food without any impact on your health is the wonderful promise of synthetic sweeteners. You believed it and probably still do, when you drink a diet soda without guilt.
Aspartam, code name E951, is part of our daily life, present, everywhere (or almost everywhere), hidden behind the words light, free sugar, sugar-free or light.
This means that its range of action is wide: confectionery (chewing gum), sodas, cough syrups, delicatessen, nicotine substitutes, etc. Since 1985, France has allowed aspartame in the food and pharmaceutical industry.
However, today, after avalanches of scientific data and studies in the best laboratories in the world, Aspartam is still subject to controversy and for some scientists or whistleblowers, the enemy to kill.
So if you still believe that your sugar will reduce your body mass index (BMI), and protect you from diabetes, read the rest of this article.
A controversial birth
Aspartame was born in 1965, accidentally, in the test tubes of an American laboratory called Searle. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except that the company is in great financial difficulty.
To speed up marketing procedures, Searle will finance Donald Rumsfeld’s campaign in Chicago. The FDA, the American Food Safety Agency, therefore authorizes the product prematurely, with little hindsight on human health.
Twice, it will try to ban it and finally, in 2007, based on a positive data beam, it will recognize aspartame as healthy and safe.
What are the components of Aspartame?
Aspartame is a synthetic sweetener, produced industrially. It is composed of 40% phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and 10% methanol. It is your body that will metabolize this trio, in other words, transform it into other chemical compounds.
Phenylalanine: what is it?
It belongs to the family of amino acids, which are the major components of proteins. They are found in fruits, fish, eggs, meat etc. They are essential to our organizations that do not manufacture it.
A daily intake is therefore recommended (200 to 1000 mg). Amino phenylalanine has a positive effect on weight gain, nervousness, thyroid gland, memory processes and chemical exchanges within the brain.
In excess, it is toxic to neurons.
What is phenylketonuria?
Phenylketonuria, also known as PKU, is a rare disease. The liver is poisoned by phenylalanine, which is not digested. Individuals with this disease are mentally retarded. The consumption of aspartame is strictly prohibited.
In your body, Aspartame is transformed by digestive juices, heat etc. Two molecules are born as a result of its migration from the digestive system to the intestines: methanol and asparthyl-phenylalanine (1).
Methanol is transformed into formaldehyde and formic acid. Formaldehyde is carcinogenic. Recognized by the French health authorities (ANSES)(2) for its high toxicity even in low doses.
It stores itself in human cells and destroys them. Formic acid, which results from the degradation of formaldehyde, is known to affect vision.
A cocktail of acidity
In a coca can, there is (among other things) phosphoric acid that keeps its acidity (ph) at an acceptable level, and makes it sparkling.
The combination of phosphoric acid and formic acid in a diet coke explodes acid levels in your body. At high doses, you are at risk of ketoacidosis, a known complication of type 1 diabetes.
So what is the point of consuming aspartame?
Its sweetening power is almost 200 times greater than that of refined sugar. Its low caloric value is about 4 kcal/gram, count 387kcal/gram for sugar.
It is therefore recommended by dieticians and doctors, to people wishing to limit their caloric intake.
Can I include aspartam in my cake recipe?
No and for two reasons: 3
- When heated above 105 degrees, diketopiperazine (3) appears. This molecule has 6 atoms and is carcinogenic.
- The sweetening power of Aspartam does not resist heat
What are the nutritional qualities of aspartam?
Despite its amino acid status, aspartam has no nutritional value. The ANSES recognizes this in 2012.
Does aspartame increase the risk of type II diabetes?
People who drink diet coke have a 60% higher chance of developing type II diabetes than those who drink a sweet soda “normally”.
In 2013, this INSERM study (4) (5), led by epidemiologists, is a paving stone in the pond. The first virtue of aspartame, that of not influencing our blood sugar levels, is a lie.
The analysis, conducted over 14 years, on a group of 66,188 women concluded that the:
- Diabetic risk greater than 15% for a consumption of 0.5 litres/week
- Diabetic risk greater than 59% for a consumption of 1.5 litres/week
The findings show that women who consume light drink almost twice as much as those who consume traditional soft drinks.
In addition, there is a relationship between aspartame ingestion and a rise in blood sugar levels, which stimulates insulin levels. Indeed, by over-stimulating insulin, individuals would develop “a form of insulin resistance”.
Aspartame is said to promote compulsive food trends
Florian Saffer, a dietician-nutritionist and addictive behaviour specialist, himself observed that individuals who took aspartame had compulsive tendencies with sweetness (6). He puts forward two hypotheses:
- I want to lose weight quickly, I control everything I eat, so I fall for sweetness.
- Aspartame somehow deceives our blood sugar and serotonin. In the absence of real sugar, seronotonin remains inhibited, the individual feels the lack of sugar.
Serotonin, is a hormone that affects the regulation of appetite and our mood. If it is deactivated, we become irritable, the quality of our sleep suffers, we are hungry (compulsive eating) and thirsty.
Some of these disorders are sometimes described by light drinkers.
Aspartame and cardiovascular problems
At the University of Iowa, Dr. Ankur Vyas(7) conducted a study of 60,000 women. Menopausal, they have drunk more than two light sodas a day, and have developed more heart problems than others.
For the team that conducted the experiment, “there are more questions than answers”. If the correlation exists, the process cannot be explained. There remains the result that must be questioned.
Does aspartame promote cancer?
In the current state of knowledge (8), this cannot be definitively stated. The Italian study by the Ramazinni Institute in Bologna (1997) is often cited but questioned for its choice of protocol.
In particular, ANSES, the national food safety agency, criticises partial tumour analysis, statistical methods, poor tumour serialisation and rats that are sometimes too old.
The ANSES may be criticised for basing its opinions on sweeteners on the study financed by Ajinomoto, an aspartame (!) manufacturer. On this subject, if the experts’ opinions differ, the doubt is not removed. Let’s stay vigilant!
Can I consume light drinks during my pregnancy?
Between 1996 and 2002, 91,827 women were followed by a Danish team, led by Professor Halldorson (9)(10)? Of these women, 35% were pregnant.
The statistics speak for themselves: the consumption of light drinks significantly increases the number of premature births:
- two to three drinks a day: 35%.
- more than four: 78%.
This can be explained, in part, by the metabolization of methanol, which causes high blood pressure.
How many light drinks can I drink per day?
EFSA recommends not to exceed 40 mg/day and agrees with the American recommendations (50 mg/day) on this point; in other words, an adult of 75 kg will have to consume more than 16 cans of coca to exceed this acceptable daily intake (ADI).
This seems, in the light of recent studies, to be far too high a value, criticized even within the scientific community.
Jean-François Narbonne, toxicologist at INSERM, questions the European ADI and proposes, like Italy, a rate not exceeding 4 mg/day (11).
Eating better with less sugar
Giving your child a diet soda may seem reassuring: no sugar, less calories. In fact, sugar education is the core of the problem (12). Drinking a soda with sweetener, so without consequence, offers the possibility of drinking more.
The same reasoning can be applied to all types of so-called light products: food, confectionery, etc. However, our children need landmarks to educate their appetite: fixed meal time, nutritional balance of meals, feeling full, avoiding snacking.
Do aspartame consumers have a higher BMI?
Some studies show that consumers of light have a higher BMI, a higher body mass index. This result can be interpreted in several ways:
Is the feeling of hunger stimulated by aspartame? (13)(14)(15) or does the notion of light free excessive behaviour? The study, published in 1991 in the American Journal of Nutrition, is not a definitive conclusion.
Here again, common sense must guide you. If you feel that your consumption is increasing: start by noting, to visualize, with certainty, your habits. Consult a doctor or dietician, especially if you are overweight.
To date, the Environment and Health Network (RES) (16) has criticised the position of the European (EFSA)(17) and French (ANSES) authorities on the subject of Aspartam(18).
The acceptable daily dose, 40 mg/day, remains too high given recent studies (2013 for the INSERM study). In the absence of a diapason from the official authorities, you must remain informed and responsible.
If you consume a light drink or chew a chewing gum said sugar-free, can be a one-time pleasure, pay attention to habit and quantity. Pregnant women should abstain, as the results on this point are quite clear.
However, if aspartame is one of the most controversial additives, it is also one of the most studied. Excessive demonization leads to totally unproductive misinformation.
Cross-referencing data from official websites with the results of recent studies allows you to form your own opinion.
- Guy Fagherazzi, épidémiologiste, INSERM, « les délits du light » https://youtu.be/cDS7YwEh5UI
- https://www.anses.fr/fr/system/files/AAAT2011sa0015.pdf ANSES, Agence Nationale de Sécurité
- https://presse.inserm.fr/les-boissons-light-associees-a-une-augmentation-du-risque-de-diabete-de-type-2/6541/ INSERM
- https//academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/68/3/531/4648613?searchresult=1 American journal of clinical nutrition
- http://dietetique.over-blog.com/article-aspartame-et-compulsion-112775175.htmlFlorian Schaffer, nutritionniste, spécialiste des comportements addictifs.
- https://now.uiowa.edu/2014/03/ui-study-finds-diet-drinks-associated-heart-trouble-older-women Université de l’Iowa, docteur Ankur Vyas