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Aspartame: A Dangerous Excitotoxin That Can Damage Your Brain

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aspartameAspartame, 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 Approval was repealed for a short time in 1980.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.

About Karen Bentley

Author, Educator, Founder of The SugarFreeInstitute and SugarFree Nutrition and Weight Loss Expert. Over 15 published books. The Power to Stop: Stopping as a path to personal power, self-love and enlightenment is currently a bestseller on Amazon Kindle. For more info visit, or
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    The best advice is to consume water, herbal tea, white wine and seltzer. Stevia is probably the best additive to coffee or oatmeal. Coffee, although permitted by many physicians, should be consumed no more than once or twice daily.

  • bliffle

    I must point out again that Joe Maresca is NOT a Doctor, nor is he a scientist, so disregard his medical advice. To be an honest person he should abandon the “Dr” in his title.

    • Christopher Rose

      It may be pretentious or over-compensating in some way but isn’t anybody with a doctorate entitled to call themselves doctor if they want to? Furthermore, Joseph is as entitled to post an opinion as anybody else, so I don’t really understand why you are so wound up…

      • bliffle

        Joe Maresca simply has no credentials. As near as I can tell his doctorate is from a diploma mill, in some obscure branch of accounting. Ordinary people might be misled by his pretentiousness. They might think he knows something, which he does not.

        This group should simply strike all titles from names, as is done by most scientific forums. Arguments From Authority are inherently weak but often have unwarranted influence with the naive, who often seem to be looking for a leader to follow. My observation is that most readers herein are insufficiently experienced to separate out blowhards.

        Lacking such a commonsense group policy, I, like anyone else, may feel free to anoint myself Grand Poobah Of All That Is Wondrous, or some such, to feed my ego and overwhelm the gullible.

        I remain, y.o.s., bliffle.