The use of aspartame as a sweetener was discovered by accident back in 1965. The discovery was made by a chemist named James D. Schlatter, who worked for G.D. Searle and Company, and who accidentally brushed his finger in some white powder and later licked it and discovered that is was sweet. This discovery lead to the rise of aspartame as a popular sugar substitute (and it actually is 200 times sweeter than sugar), which was successfully marketed under names like NutraSweet, Equal, and Spoonful. For many years, it was touted as a healthy alternative to sugar for those trying to lose weight and was also considered to be diabetic-friendly. However, many began to realize that aspartame had the potential for harmful side effects, and the debate still rages over whether it is actually safe for human consumption.
The Chemistry of Aspartame
Although aspartame look and tastes very much like sugar, it is chemically very different, being composed of two amino acids situated around a central carbon molecule. When aspartame entered the human digestive tract, it breaks down into its separate components and enters the bloodstream.
One of aspartame’s amino acid by-products is called aspartic acid. It is a neurotransmitter, which some speculate might be why aspartame has been linked to neurological problems like headaches, dizziness and even the potential to develop brain tumors. Several studies have made the links between aspartame and these conditions.
The other amino acid by-product is called phenylalanine has also been proven dangerous – but so far only to a small segment of the population. The segment is composed of those who suffer from the condition called phenylketonuria, a rare but difficult-to-treat metabolic disorder. Those with this disease cannot properly break down the substance phenylalanine, so it can rise to toxic levels in the body and cause severe mental and cognitive impairment which is sadly irreversible.
The single carbon found attached to these amino acids can also cause issues: once in the body, it forms methanol, a wood alcohol used in rocket fuel and antifreeze, among many other products. When the body metabolizes it, it breaks down into formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen and is popularly used in embalming fluids. The debate around this, then, is whether the small amount of methanol obtained from consuming aspartame really constitutes a risk to human health.
Weighing Risks and Benefits
There have been studies which have linked the use of aspartame to cancer – but this study was solely on lab rats, the most famous one coming out of the Ramazzini Foundation. While the FDA and some researchers found fault with its methods, other defended the paper and this has only fueled the debate. Two things are for sure in this controversy: further research is needed to determine more definitely what health risks are involved with aspartame consumption and that this debate is not likely to be resolved any time soon. Consumers should then weight the risks of ingesting this product against the benefits of having a viable alternative to sugar.
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