“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” — Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

The rose Juliet refers to is the Montague name, which Romeo symbolically rejects in defiance of his father. Setting poetic license aside, there is less to feel rosy about when it comes to playing on words to disguise the presence of food additives. Take artificial sweeteners, for instance. Aspartame by any other name may be just as sweet, but potentially just as toxic — whether you call it NutraSweet®, Equal® or the manufacturer’s latest moniker: AminoSweet.
As the name “AminoSweet” suggests, aspartame is a non-saccharide sweetener derived from amino acids. Specifically, it is the methyl ester of aspartic acid and the dipeptide of phenylalanine, a molecule consisting of two amino acids coupled by a single peptide bond. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid and a precursor to tyrosine, a signaling molecule that stimulates the synthesis of the skin pigment melanin and certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Introduced in Europe more than 25 years ago where it is known as E951, aspartame was approved for use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. Not long after, researchers began to find evidence that aspartame was a possible carcinogen. Ergo, the controversy surrounding the safety of this substance arose and has persisted to this day.

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In July 2005, the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (ERF) published a carcinogenicity study in which the researchers concluded that aspartame causes cancer, namely lymphomas and leukemias in male and female rats. (1) In April 2007, the FDA released a statement announcing that the agency did not find sufficient evidence to support the ERF’s conclusion. Further, the FDA maintained its position that the use of aspartame is safe. (2)
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that a 1996 report showing an increase in the incidence of brain tumors between 1975 and 1992 correlated these statistics with the introduction of aspartame in the U.S. Later, the results of a 2005 laboratory study in which rats were fed high doses of diet soda sweetened with aspartame once again suggested a link to an increase in lymphomas and leukemias. However, NCI also points out problems with study design and inconsistencies in extrapolating statistical results. For instance, the rats in the 2005 study were exposed to impossible amounts of the sweet stuff, in some cases the equivalent of drinking more than 2,000 cans of soda a day. And, according to NCI, although the 1996 report was correct that the rate of brain cancers did increase during the period in question, the rise actually started eight years before aspartame became FDA-approved and occurred most frequently in people in their 70s, who typically have a lower exposure level to this agent. (3)
Sweeten, Stir, Repeat
What does all of this scientific hullabaloo really mean for you? First, it means that no one really knows if aspartame – or other artificial sweeteners, for that matter – causes cancer or not. However, there is one position that can’t escape common sense: If the question of toxicity exists, why use the stuff at all?
We do know for certain that some people have a sensitivity to aspartame (including this writer). Even the FDA concedes that excess levels of free aspartic acid in the body can trigger migraines, asthma attacks, anxiety, depression and other reactions. In addition, because this amino acid impairs glucose uptake in the brain, it may cause fatigue and memory loss. According to Joseph M. Mercola, DO, the manufacturer of aspartame was warned by scientists at Washington University’s School of Medicine in 1971 that aspartic acid produces holes in the brains of mice. In response, the manufacturer, G.D. Searle, started looking for a pharmaceutical drug to counter memory loss due to amino acid damage, albeit more than a decade later. (4)
Aspartame is also known to be dangerous to people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare congenital disorder in which the body cannot metabolize phenylalanine, the co-amino acid that makes up the composition of aspartame. According to the American Cancer Society, the buildup of phenylalanine in the bloodstream blocks other important chemicals from entering the brain. In children, this can lead to impaired brain development. This may also explain the persistent association with aspartame and memory loss, seizures, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in adults. (5)
Stick to the Bottom Line, Sweetie
Sugar, obtained from natural sources like sugar beets and cane, is the real deal. Sugar in its most natural state is turbinado, commonly recognized as Sugar in the Raw®. Honey is another all-natural sweetener, although it shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 1 year because Botulinum spores may be present, which increases the risk of infant botulism.
If diabetes is a concern, Mother Nature produces a plant called stevia, the leaf of which yields a natural sugar-like substance that is 150 to 300 times sweeter than cane sugar, but has no affect insulin levels. As an added bonus, stevia has zero calories.
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