Aspartame, also known by the brand names NutraSweet and Equal, is a common and popular artificial sweetener. It’s also a powerful excitotoxin. Excitotoxins are a class of chemical substances that have the harmful potential to excite, exhaust, damage and ultimately kill brain cells. The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine says excitotoxins result in “diverse neurologic diseases.” (Three other common artificial sweeteners – sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet N Low) and stevia blends – are not excitotoxins.)
Over 100 countries, including the U.S., claim aspartame is safe for human consumption. The FDA says, “Few compounds have withstood such detailed testing and repeated close scrutiny.” Aspartame was first approved by the FDA in 1974. Approval was repealed for a short time in 1980. Then it was again approved by the FDA in 1981. Aspartame has been in our food supply ever since.
A timeline of the FDA aspartame-approval process is available here. The cozy political connection between Ronald Reagan (then a newly elected president) and Donald Rumsfeld (then the CEO of Searle, the owner of aspartame) allegedly resulted in the speedy FDA approval the second time around.
After FDA approval, aspartame quickly became the most popular artificial sweetener in the world. That is because cyclamate, another artificial sweetener, was banned in the U.S. in 1969 and a different product was wanted and needed by the dieting and diabetic public. At the same time, Saccharin was suspected of causing bladder cancer. Consequently, all saccharin products had to display a cancer warning from the 1970s until 2000 when Bill Clinton removed it during his last week in office, perhaps the first ever presidential pardon for a food product.
Aspartame dominated the artificial sweetener market for 30 years until the introduction of sucralose in 1998. Since then, sucralose has taken over as the most popular, and stevia blends aren’t far behind. That said, over 6,000 drinks, food products, pharmaceuticals and vitamin supplements are still made with aspartame. It’s especially prevalent in diet sodas, low-fat foods, yogurts, cereals, shakes, gums, and some sugar-free foods.
The recipe for aspartame is to combine two amino acids, L-phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid, with a third component called a methyl ester group. All three ingredients have the potential to create serious, chronic neurological problems and are the subject of relentless anecdotal reporting by individuals and warnings by independent health experts. Problems range from headaches to seizures, strokes, tumors and progressive neurological diseases. None of this is officially recognized.
Let’s take a look at each ingredient in aspartame:
● The amino acid phenylalanine is serious health threat for people with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). It’s known to cause mental retardation, brain damage, seizures and other problems and must be avoided. The FDA requires a warning on any food that contains aspartame: “Phenylketonurics: Contains phenylalanine.”
Note that large doses of aspartame can also cause a rapid increase in the brain levels of phenylalanine in people who do not have PKU. This is particularly problematic if aspartame is taken in conjunction with a sleep disorder, an anxiety disorder, or with medications that contain levodopa or that contain oxidase inhibitors or neuroleptics.
● The amino acid called L-aspartic acid or aspartate is an excitotoxin. Researchers noticed that a certain class of chemicals over-excite brain cells and cause them to dysfunction or die. They called these chemicals excitotoxins because they harm and kill with over-stimulation. At least 70 excitotoxins have been identified, but the two most prevalent are aspartame and MSG. Other common ingredient terms that hide the presence of excitotoxins include natural flavors, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, plant protein and others.
Excitotoxins are said to be safe because of the blood-brain barrier, which regulates and prevents harmful substances from entering the brain. The basic idea is that small amounts of aspartame (and other excitotoxins) do not impair brain functionality or cause disease because the blood-brain barrier keeps them out. New research, however, leads to a different conclusion. Some experts now believe the barrier can be compromised, especially when excitotoxins accumulate over time and reach a certain threshold. The greater the intake of excitotoxins, the faster the threshold is reached.