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The Aspartame Conspiracy
By Rowena Fletcher-Wood | October 19th, 2014 |
It is perhaps natural to feel a suspicion towards artificial sweeteners. Nothing should be tasty without doing you any harm – that spoils the righeousness of self-denial, the good feeling that spurs you on to a diet consisting entirely of celery sticks and uncooked tomato! But it isn’t just a dose of good old disbelief that has made aspartame the MMR of the chemical world: aspartame’s is a tale of dark conspiracy.
There are two strands of this tale: the US legal battle and the internet smear campaign.
But let’s start with the synthesis of artificial sweeteners – a funny name, because they do actually sweeten things, 180 times more so than natural sugar, in fact. Thus much less aspartame is needed to create the same sweet taste. In a typical fizzy drink, < 1 calorie of energy comes from aspartame. The metabolites of aspartame are anything but artificial too: methanol, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are all natural products. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid are essential amino acids present in proteins and the human body can even synthesise its own aspartic acid. But we made aspartame in a lab and we don't like the word "artificial". "Artificial" means cheating, impure, free from muddy fields, milk-laden cows and a long history of slave labour. Two people who really didn't like artificial food products were John Olney and James Turner, a prominent MSG critic and an author of an anti-food-additive book. In 1975, they successfully petitioned against the US approval of aspartame and secured an investigation by grand jury. Which was delayed. And delayed again. And finally replaced with a study review panel of academic pathologists. Who decided the original safety studies were sound. This conclusion made a small number of people very unhappy, and so the conspiracy theory was borne. Accusations were made of deliberate delays, bribery, inconsistency between industry-funded and independent reports, and connections to tumours in rodents. Although these claims were later discredited as unfounded or relating to malpractice, the internet smear campaign, or “Markle hoax”, circulated fear of aspartame, claiming it was responsible for methanol toxicity, blindness, seizures, depression and anxiety, memory loss, birth defects, cancerous brain tumours, multiple sclerosis, spasms, shooting pains and headaches. Websites hosting this information cited their source as an email on a talk from the untraceable “Nancy Markle” at an unidentified world conference. The website aspartamekills.com was since featured on the Media Awareness Network tutorial on how to identify non credible web pages. You may remember that aspartame actually does metabolise to methanol. However, the dose is so low it would take 22,000 cans of pop for the methanol to kill you, which is a bit of a moot point when you would already have died after the 300th can from caffeine poisoning. Besides, methanol is also produced in the break down of pectins from fruits and, at these concentrations, happily oxidised and removed by the liver and kidneys. In fact, aspartame and its metabolites are "one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives” and the only reasonable hazard associated with aspartame - and reason for regulatory labelling in the UK - is phenylalanine. Those suffering from the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria don't produce a certain enzyme that breaks down excess phenylalanine in their diet; although they still need it, they must be wary of excess. Build up in the brain causes learning and behavioural disabilities and epilepsy... Which may well be the only three symptoms the Markle hoax forgot to credit to aspartame. Sources en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame_controversy www.gov.uk/food-labelling-and-packaging/food-and-drink-warnings http://www.sweetenerbook.com/aspartame_2.html
Rowena Fletcher-Wood is a science communicator, writer and climber. She is now completing her doctoral research in materials environmental chemistry at the University of Birmingham and obtained her Masters in Chemistry at the University of Oxford in 2011. She had been teaching and communicating science since 2006, and now takes part in science performances such as Science Showoff and StoryCollider. To read more of her writing, see potatoskinbelt.co.uk, my.rsc.org/blogs/199 or prospect.rsc.org/blogs/cw/category/accidental-discoveries.