Sometime in 1965, a chemist called James M. Schlatter working at G.D. Searle and Company licked his fingers while trying to turn a page in the book he was reading. This gave rise to an entire industry and also kick-started an eternal controversy as his fingertips had been accidentally contaminated with an unassuming white powder.
The powder as discovered by Schlatter was aspartame – this substance is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Today, it is an artificial sweetener known by brand names NutraSweet, Equal, and spoonful. It’s been almost half a century since the discovery of the incredibly sweet aspartame, but still, scientists are at loggerheads as to whether this sweet substance is safe for human consumption.
Essentially, Aspartame is made up of three components: aspartic acid, phenylalanine acid – both amino acids and an extra carbon atom that is stuck on one end. These components are broken down completely in the small intestine and make their way into the blood separately.
Aspartic acid however, is non-essential because the body can manufacture it from other raw materials. They are speculations that consuming aspartame affects the way the brain works – partly because it’s a neurotransmitter, also, that it probably causes headaches, migraines, or even worse ailments. Even though most dietary proteins contain aspartic acid, the quantity that can be gained through a normal diet dwarfs that of artificially sweetened drinks and foods.
Phenylalanine acid, the other constituent of aspartame which is an essential amino acid – as the body can only get it through the diet, comes with a tale. A tale important for only a small quartet of the population – sufferers of the disease called phenylketonuria. Phenylketonuria is an inborn error in metabolism that causes a decrease in the metabolism of the phenylalanine amino acid. Therefore, ingesting this amino acid increases the phenylalanine level, and when this builds up can cause damage to the brain.
These two amino acids that make up about 90% of aspartame are considered harmless for most people; the debate between scientists is still heated up with respect to the extra carbon atom that is at the end of the molecule. The debate lies in the fact that a single molecule of methanol is formed when aspartame metabolizes.
Methanol affects the body in almost the same way that the alcohol (ethanol) that can be found in wines and beers does, but ethanol does not transform into waste products like methanol. Methanol transforms into waste products like formaldehyde – a carcinogen that morticians use as embalming fluids, and then it oxidizes to formic acid. It gets confusing, as methanol is also found in harmless foods like fruits and vegetables in quantities comparable to foods that contain aspartame.
It gets even more contentious, as in 2005 the European Ramazzini Foundation conducted a study in which it tracked the health standard of rats fed with aspartame for their entire lives, the results of the study showed that aspartame consumption increases the risk of cancer in a lifetime. Some scientist defended this study, saying aspartame still needs to be examined the more. While the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a host of other researchers found faults in the study saying: It is difficult to tell whether cancer in a very old rat was actually caused by the intake of aspartame or whether it occurred naturally. This is because in rats, as well as in humans, a good percentage usually succumbs to cancer at the latter stages of their life.
The debate about the long-term safety of aspartame lingers on; it’s however, important to evaluate aspartame based on whether it’s healthier than sugar – its alternative, rather than its absolute safety. For some, this zero-calorie alternative for sugar might still be the healthier option putting into cognizance the rising levels of diabetes and obesity in the United States of America. Meanwhile different new artificial sweeteners are flooding the markets, one of such is sucrose. Sucrose often extracted or refined either from beet sugar or cane, may or may not come with its own health risks.
The scientific jury is still out as per the safety of both artificial sweeteners and sugar, leading to the public developing cold feet about both. A safer and healthier alternative is to kick that soda habit; draw that glass of water, unsweetened coffee or tea closer.