We as humans, living our busy lives, want simplicity. We want something to be good or bad, healthy or deadly, Darth Vader or Anakin Skywalker; but unfortunately we live in a world of hybrids.
Moderation is key to all things dietary (and in general I suppose), from high fructose corn syrup to avocados, and even aspartame. But for some reason aspartame has become a source of fear mongering and anti-science rhetoric much of the internet over. As to why, a better blogger must delve down that rabbit hole; I’m more concerned with clearing the fog and separating fact from bunk.
So what are the claims?
One I’ve heard a lot recently is that aspartame causes migraines. Having some recent and significant experience with migraines and cluster headaches I can tell you honestly, they suck. And that they are a very complicated topic; causes can range from brain cancer to stress, but are most commonly “unknown”, and you can only treat the symptoms while avoiding the triggers. There is some evidence showing that aspartame has a correlation with headaches, although those are different from migraines (yet headaches can trigger migraines). However, caffeine is a known trigger of migraines, and it is found in many of the same places that one finds aspartame. So if I were to, for example, cut down on my aspartame intake, I’d be cutting down on my caffeine intake, and would most likely see a decline in the triggering of migraines. And if I were so inclined, I could easily conclude this was due to consuming less aspartame; but this would be a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
So since there is some evidence suggesting a correlation to headaches, we’ll leave this claim as: Plausible. When researching this claim I missed this recent study. Explained rather thoroughly here, the study compared “48 self-reported aspartame sensitive individuals” in a double-blind experiment showing absolutely no correlation between aspartame and the 14 symptoms measured, among those 14 were headaches and head pain. Although independent replication, and a larger sample size than 48 are needed to solidify the evidence, seeing no measurable effect whatsoever is very damaging to the claim. And for this reason I’m changing my analysis to: False. (Special thank you to our own David Rainsberger) [Correction seen in red, made at 5/8/2015 approx. 6pm EST].
Another claim is that aspartame causes “cancer, brain tumors, and multiple sclerosis”. As a neat article on Snopes will tell you, this rumor was seemingly started in a chain letter from 1998 and stands on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Not only is the claim itself (or any such claims sense) missing a proposed method of how something as chemically similar to sugar could biologically do such a thing; but since 1998 we haven’t seen the major (and I’m talking major) leaps in cancer or MS that the subsequent mass use of aspartame would have led to, had this claim been valid. In addition, a recent review of the scientific literature shows that there is no link whatsoever between aspartame and cancer. Therefore, this claim is utterly: False.
Still another claim is a link between aspartame and weight gain. The issue if those who consume too much aspartame are generally overweight, is more or less settled; they tend to be heavier. But the issue here is whether or not those who knowingly consume low-calorie beverages (where one finds most aspartame) for the purpose of consuming fewer calories, then think to themselves, “Now I can eat that extra food, because I drank a zero calorie drink.” This tendency would lead to an average increase in calorie intake, and therefore weight gain. The other alternative is that aspartame itself causes the weight gain by confusing the brain’s ability to discern tasting something sweet, with consuming more calories. Trying to figure out which is the cause of the apparent weight gain however, is quite tricky; as both effects would be true for all artificial sweeteners, not just aspartame. And as of now, this review shows the data to be very much up in the air. So answering this claim is difficult; if true it’s not just true for aspartame, but for all zero calorie sweeteners. But at the same time, those who consume substantial amounts of aspartame do tend to be more overweight. So for the pedantic inner-me, I must say: True, but why?
There are so many claims about aspartame out there, however these were the most prevalent I’ve found, and I wanted to address them first. Perhaps an Aspartame Part II is in order. In the mean time however, I hope that you think about these two points: Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied additives and has been proven time and time again to safe for human (and most non-human) consumption. And, there is a toxicity level to everything, absolutely everything is poison if you ingest enough of it, so moderation is key.
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