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Artificial Sweeteners: Is Aspartame Safe?

Note: This was originally published as a “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine under the title “Aspartame: Safe Sweetener or Perilous Poison?” and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Michael Shermer. There are other artificial sweeteners not specifically addressed here, but as far as I know there are no convincing health concerns about any of them, just this same kind of hype and fearmongering based on animal studies and speculation with no validation from human clinical studies.


Aspartame is a low calorie sugar substitute marketed under brand names like Equal and Nutrasweet. It is a combination of two amino acids: L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It is available as individual packets for adding to foods and it is a component of many diet soft drinks and other reduced-calorie foods. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers.

A reader sent me an ad from his local newspaper that recommended using stevia instead of aspartame and made these startling claims about aspartame:

  1. It is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria
  2. Upon ingestion, it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
  3. It accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, migraines, dizzinesss, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.

Let’s look at those claims one by one.

  1. In some markets, aspartame manufacture takes advantage of modern genetic laboratory processes. A plasmid introduces genes into E. coli bacteria; the genes are incorporated into the bacterial DNA and they increase production of enzymes that enhance the production of phenylalanine. The bacteria produce more phenylalanine, serving as little living factories. The phenylalanine these workhorses produce for us is exactly the same as phenylalanine from any other source.  It is disingenuous and inflammatory to characterize it as “derived from excrement.”  Genetic processes like this are widely used today. One stunning example is Humulin. Diabetics used to develop allergic reactions to the beef and pork antigens in insulin derived from cows and pigs because it was slightly different from human insulin and contained impurities. Scientists found a way to put human insulin genes into E. coli bacteria and put them to work producing true, pure human insulin. This was such a great advantage to diabetics that animal insulins are no longer even available.
  2. Some of the things we ingest are directly absorbed and utilized unchanged, like water. But most of what we ingest is metabolized.  Aspartame is metabolized. It does indeed break down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.  Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids that we need to survive. Methanol is produced in small amounts by the metabolism of many foods; it is harmless in small amounts. A cup of tomato juice produces six times as much methanol as a cup of diet soda. Methanol is completely metabolized via formaldehyde to formic acid; no formaldehyde remains. Lastly, the formic acid is broken down into water and carbon dioxide. Human studies show that formic acid is eliminated faster than it is formed after ingestion of aspartic acid.  So yes, those compounds appear, but so what?  We get much larger amounts of the same compounds from our food, and they don’t hurt us.
  3. I searched for documentation of that claim, and I couldn’t find the 75% figure anywhere. What I did find was that FD&C dyes (not aspartame) are the food additives most frequently associated with adverse reactions. Anyway, a list of reported adverse reactions is meaningless by itself. People can report any symptom they noticed after using aspartame, but they can be fooled by the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: just because a symptom occurred after ingesting aspartame, that doesn’t prove aspartame caused the symptom. Controlled studies are needed to determine if the symptom occurred more often in people using aspartame than in people not using it. Many such studies have been done and have not shown a correlation of aspartame use with any of those symptoms.

Internet Hoax

So the ad amounts to scare tactics based on false and distorted information. Actually, this ad is pretty mild compared to some of the alarmist misinformation circulating on the Internet. There we are told that there is a widespread epidemic of aspartame poisoning, causing headaches, seizures, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, blindness, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, even Gulf War Syndrome. We are told that  “If you…suffer from fibromyalgia symptoms, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, vertigo, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, or memory loss-you probably have ASPARTAME DISEASE!” We are expected to believe the lie that “When they remove brain tumors, they have found high levels of aspartame in them.”

All this misinformation has been identified as a hoax, an urban legend, by various sources including Time.com, Snopes.com and About.com. Much of it hinges on a widely disseminated e-mail by a “Nancy Markle” who was accused of plagiarizing it from Betty Martini. Martini is the founder of Mission Possible World Health International, which is “committed to removing the deadly chemical aspartame from our food.” She is also anti-vaccine, anti-fluoride, anti-MSG, a conspiracy theorist, and thinks she was cured of breast cancer by an herbal formula.

Her website consists of misinformation, testimonials, and hysterical rants. She implores readers:  YOUR personal horror story needed NOW!. She is associated with a number of others notorious for circulating unreliable information, including the infamous Joseph Mercola.

There’s even a book, Sweet Poison, by Janet Hull, creator of the Aspartame Detox Program.

Scientific Studies

Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by the regulatory agencies of more than ninety countries worldwide, with FDA officials describing aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut.”

When the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food evaluated aspartame, they found over 500 papers on aspartame published between 1988 and 2001. It has been studied in animals, in various human populations including infants, children, women, obese adults, diabetics, and lactating women. Numerous studies have ruled out any association with headaches, seizures, behavior, cognition, mood, allergic reactions, and other conditions. It has been evaluated far more extensively than any other food additive.

When new rat studies by the Ramazzini Foundation in Italy appeared to show an association with tumors, the European Food Safety Authority examined Ramazzini’s raw data and found errors that made them discredit the studies. Their updated opinion based on all the data available in 2009 said there was no indication of any genotoxic or carcinogenic potential of aspartame and that there was no reason to revise their previously established ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) for aspartame of 40 mg/kg/day.  Studies have shown that actual consumption is well below that limit.

People who are absolutely convinced they get adverse effects from aspartame have been proven wrong. For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of people who reported having headaches repeatedly after consuming aspartame. When they knew what they were consuming, 100% of them had headaches. In a double blind crossover trial, when they didn’t know what they were getting, 35% had headaches after aspartame, and 45% had headaches after placebo.

Is Stevia Safer?

Stevia comes from a plant, and the Guaraní Indians of South America have been using it to sweeten their yerba mate for centuries. The “natural fallacy” and the “ancient wisdom fallacy” sway many consumers, but for those of us who are critical thinkers, who want to avoid logical fallacies and look at the scientific evidence, what does science tell us? Is stevia preferable to aspartame?  We really don’t know. Concerns have been raised about possible adverse effects such as cancer and birth defects. Stevia is banned in most European countries and in Singapore and Hong Kong because their regulatory agencies felt that there was insufficient toxicological evidence to demonstrate its safety. The US banned its import in 1991 as a food additive, but the 1994 Diet Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) legalized its sale as a dietary supplement. Most of the safety concerns have been dismissed, but so have the concerns about aspartame. Arguably, the concerns about stevia are more valid than those about aspartame, because there is less evidence refuting them.

The plant extract is refined using ethanol, methanol, crystallization and separation technologies to separate the various glycoside molecules. The Coca-Cola Company sells it as Truvia. Pepsi sells it as PureVia. It is a product of major corporations and is prepared in a laboratory using “toxic” chemicals like methanol. For some reason that doesn’t bother those who are promoting stevia as a natural product.

What about HFCS?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also being demonized. “High” fructose isn’t really so high. HFCS is 55% fructose. Sucrose (table sugar) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Honey is 50% fructose. Apples have 57% fructose; pears have 64%.  Fructose has been blamed for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a wide variety of other illnesses, but the evidence is inconclusive.  Avoiding fructose would mean avoiding all sources of fructose, not just HFCS. Avoiding fruit is probably not healthy. An International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Expert Panel concluded that “there is no basis for recommending increases or decreases in [fructose] use in the general food supply or in special dietary use products.” HFCS is 25% sweeter than sucrose, so you can use less of it and get fewer calories. Limiting total calorie intake is healthy, and both HFCS and aspartame can contribute to that goal.

Is Aspartame Safe?

Yes! For everyone except people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). They must avoid aspartame because they can’t process phenylalanine and accumulated high levels of phenylalanine can damage their brains. Science has adequately demonstrated that aspartame is safe for everyone else.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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63 thoughts on “Artificial Sweeteners: Is Aspartame Safe?

  1. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    The data about fruits given here are somewhat confusing. Saying that sucrose is 50% fructose is clear: 100 gram of sucrose (table sugar) contains 50 grams of fructose. The sucrose molecule consists of glucose linked to fructose. When it is digested it is split up in the small intestine by enzymes collectively known as sucrase.

    Now for the apple. It is not correct that a fresh apple of 100 gram contains 57 grams of fructose.

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructose

    one can see that 100 gram of apple contains 13.8 gram of carbohydrates, being sugars of all kinds 10.4 gram and the remaining 3.4 gram other carbohydrates, I assume mainly starch (starch is split up into its glucose components). I have no idea how much undigestible cellulose (also a carbohydrate) is comprised in the total of 13.8 gram of the table.

    The 10.4 gram ‘sugars’ consist of three kinds: free fructose (57%, namely 5.9 gram), free glucose and sucrose. That is the source, I think, of the 57% mentioned above,

    The sucrose contributes also about 1 gram of fructose. So the digestion of 100 gram of fresh apple delivers about 7 gram of fructose to the blood and almost 7 gram of other sugars, a lot of it glucose, depending on what exactly are the non-sugar carbohydrates. The legend of the table suggests that no other sugars than glucose, fructose and sucrose are present in all these foodstuffs.

    But mannose occurs in apples (and cranberries). It is a kind of stereoisomer of glucose and after digestion it does not contribute to the glucose level in the blood, and it is mostly excreted in the urine.

    A similar computation says that the digestion of 100 gram of fresh pear produces 6.6 gram of fructose and presumably 9.2 gram other monosaccharides and indigestible polysaccharides like cellulose.

  2. wdygyp says:

    There is the hypothesis that artificial sweeteners may “trick” the brain into expecting sugars (possibly invoking premature insulin secretion), and when the sugars fail to appear, foster overeating and thus weight gain: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/sugary-vs-diet-drinks/index.html#diet-drinks

  3. I’ve also heard the hypothesis that wdygyp mentions.

    One of my concerns with most artificial sweeteners is that they taste bad. Aspartame is more tolerable than saccharin, but still noticeable. I’ve tried stevia and it does seem to taste better than both.

    I have a couple personal hypothesis to calorie consumption control. One is that sweet consumption is very habit forming (at least it is for me). The more intensely sweet items one consumes the more one wants. So I try to cut back on foods with the intensely sweet flavors. This lowers my sweet threshold, allowing me to enjoy foods with less sugar/calories and seems to decrease the sugar cravings. I figure the artificals would condition the sweetness craving the same way as the real sugar sweetness.

    Second thing is, I try to prepare foods that are rich in intense flavor. I figure better to eat a smaller portion of the thing that I really want than a larger portion that tastes blah. Aspartames totally fails on this criteria.

    Sorry, I know it has nothing to do with safety, it’s all very subjective stuff.

  4. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I agree that the switch to shortened statements (e.g, “apples” instead of “a sugar contained in apples”) is possibly confusing, but the same applies to things with HFCS in them. Nobody actually drinks a glass of pure corn syrup. Coke is only about 11% sugars in total. Baked goods containing HFCS can also contain other sugars, and loads of non-sugar carbs.

    None of this really matters to me. I am much more into greasy food than sweet food. Too bad, because fake sugar has made a lot more progress than fake fat.

  5. Angora Rabbit says:

    Great information about the Aspartame. I knew the Ramazzini study and wasn’t aware of the EFSA review that debunked it; those data looked suspect and I’m glad that it was reexamined and disproven.

    Regarding HFCS, you’re right in saying it is metabolized the same as sucrose (apart from faster absorption as sucrase is not needed). My students get the same puzzled look when we start this discussion in biochem. The problem is the ubiquity of HFCS (low cost) vs. sucrose (high cost). It is *everywhere* in foods compared with sucrose, and in foods one never expects. It’s added because people prefer sweet foods and the mfcrs are catering to our tastes and thus boost their sales.

    At this point, my students look puzzled again and say, should I stop eating fruit? The answer as you say is no. But it is because of what Jan correctly points out, which is the type of monosaccharide matters. Only glucose elicits an insulin response. Fructose doesn’t, nor mannose, galactose, or other monosaccharides, and apples have far less free glucose than does a Coke.

    So now I’m going to wax pedantic and compare consumption of a Coke vs. an apple. With both, the glucose elevates insulin. There is a higher insulin spike from the Coke than from the apple because the glucose, being free, enters the bloodstream faster than it does coming from sucrose. It has a higher glycemic index. Under insulin, the glucose is stored as intended, a mix of glycogen and fat.

    But the fructose has a different fate. Cleared predominantly by liver, under low insulin it is converted to F6P and metabolized for energy by glycolysis and TCA. But under high insulin elicited by the high glucose, fructose enters glycolysis at the level of Fru1P not F6P. It by-passes the gate keeper phosphofructokinase (normally slowed by insulin) and instead is turned into Pyruvate, then into AcCoA to enter the TCA cycle.

    But TCA flux is also slowed by the insulin, so less of the AcCoA carbon is burned for energy. What to do with it? Under insulin, we turn AcCoA into fat.

    And that’s the problem. It is the ubiquity of the fructose (as HFCS) vs. sucrose, and the high presence of the insulin that alters the metabolic fate of fructose in the Coke vs. the apple.

    The manufacturers are being disingenuous on this one. I’ve spent time talking to them at ILSI, and they all harp on the “we add less”party line that Dr. Hall reports. But do the maths, and you’ll find it is ubiquitous and is more abundant than they like to reveal.

    Sorry for being pedantic about this; I’ve been wanting to comment on the HFCS subject for some time. For any students reading, yes, this will be on tomorrow’s exam, which is why this is on my mind today. :)

    Full disclosure: I am an ILSI Future Leader of Nutrition and received research funding from them some years ago.

  6. bluedevilRA says:

    I do enjoy the double standard behind HFCS. Self-proclaimed health food nuts will adamantly refuse to eat it and then go eat an apple pie or agave nectar, which is anywhere from 56-92% fructose. I was fortunate enough to have a biochem professor several years ago (at the beginning of the HFCS controversy) who explained the ubiquity of fructose in our lives. It seems pretty clear to me that limiting sugar of all kinds is the way to go and even if HFCS increases the total amount of a person’s fructose intake, I can imagine it doesnt increase by that much.

    Michele raises a good point regarding the consumption of artificial sweeteners. I have yet to be terribly impressed by the studies that show increased calorie consumption associated with artificial sweeteners. Its possible they raise insulin levels and such, but its also just possible that people “reward” themselves for drinking a diet soda by eating a slice of cake.

    On a related note, I’ve stopped adding splenda to my coffee. Splenda has about 3.5 calories per packet and sugar has 10-15 depending. So for the 3 packets I use, its either 10 calories or 30-45. While this difference might be important to diabetics or people really trying to lose weight, I think I can afford an extra 20 calories and sugar just tastes better.

  7. bluedevilRA says:

    But angora is also right, consumers need to be aware of hidden sugars. It is actually bizarre what all they pump sugar into these days and thats one area where I side with the health food nuts over the manufactured foods. Simpler/homecooked food is better, mainly because you can control whats in there. The health foodies typically distort this into the naturalistic fallacy though.

  8. PlanetaryGear says:

    A headache or not feeling when when you first switch to a diet soda is not at all difficult to explain. If I’m used to drinking several hundred calories of pure sugar at 3 in the afternoon, and then one day I dont, it’s not at all beyond the pale to expect that I wont get the sugar high that I have grown used to that day and will feel sluggish, unhappy and perhaps get a headache. The aspartame didn’t make you feel tired, you just didn’t get your sugar buzz. The effect goes away with time ;)

  9. PharmScep says:

    thanks for the review…I had heard of the rat study as it related to the possibility of carcinogenesis, but did not know this was corrected…that helps very much to know!

    My high school associate who is now a chiropractor had some time back put up a fb post…something to the degree of “diet soda, putting the ‘DIE’ in diet”….the quacks love when rumors start out of thin air…they will run with it unapologetically….they actually quoted wakefield when I was discussing vaccines with them and I pointed out the fraud, and they turned that into a conspiracy….

    Of course you all did not speak of that observational study “linking” diet soda with vascular death….an important thing to cover in this topic because it reached many major media sources and now I hear questions from patients, nurses, peers, etc from time to time about this….

  10. biguglyjim says:

    I’m anything but an expert on the topic, but I know a lot of people (equally, non-experts) who talk about it with great bluster. I found this video by c0ncordance to be quite interesting on the topic. Just thought I’d share that.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUo2XW0z218

  11. S.C. former shruggie says:

    Great post. I hear these mths a lot. The ironic shortage of safety research on stevia, the ubiquitousness of fructose… I’ll give them this – at least they’re consistently inconsistent.

  12. pumpkinpie24 says:

    I had gestational diabetes during pregnancy and had to follow a strict diet. I was limited to the number of carbs I could have at each meal or snack, which I had to balance out with vegetables, dairy and proteins. I could have anywhere from 2-4 carb “choices” per setting, one “choice” being about 15 carbs. I was disappointed to learn that fruits were considered carbs. And all were equal. One mini candy bar=one apple=one piece of bread. Obviously, the nutrients and fats varied so there were definitely better choices, but as far as following the rules I just had to count the carbs. I couldn’t eat as much fruit as I wanted! That was the hardest part. Not giving up sweets or pop, or big heaping piles of pasta.

    But it was good that I could have a candy bar now and then. The only absolute no-nos were juice and pop, because they deliver such a high concentration of sugar at once.

    And back on topic…..my doctor said to avoid artificial sweeteners during pregnancy. I’m guessing that was just a blanket statement to make sure I avoid saccharine, which is not proven to be safe. Aspartame is.

  13. Draal says:

    And what about the chemically modified sugar know as sucralose (aka Nevella. XD )? I mean, it’s got a couple of halogens right in the molecule. Hello? Ya know what else contains halogen? That’s right, toxins like DDT, 1080 and bleach contain halogens too. And people actually consume halogenated compounds on purpose. Sheesh.

  14. Harriet Hall says:

    @pumpkinpie24,

    “I avoid saccharine, which is not proven to be safe.”

    There was a big scare about saccharin when it was found to cause bladder cancer in rodents. It was subsequently shown that it does not cause cancer in humans. My take on the evidence is that it has been proven safe.

  15. aeauooo says:

    @Draal,

    Ya know what else contains halogen?

    Table salt.

  16. HH, she was saying that her doctor wanted to make sure that she avoided saccharine during pregnancy. Apparently the American Pregnancy Association has expressed some concern over the fact that saccharine crosses the placenta and is absorbed in fetal tissue. I checked the FDA site, but was inundated with useless links. I have no idea if that’s the FDA’s observation, the APA, who the APA is or what the concerns over saccharine crossing the placenta and fetal absorption are.

    Just throwing it out there.

  17. Angora Rabbit says:

    @PumpkinPie: Just checked Schardein’s text “Chemically Induced Birth Defects.” He lists saccharine as “very unlikely to unlikely” as there were no teratogenic effects in many oral studies of mice, rats or rabbits. But there was a report that increased eye defects were seen in a single study of rats fed the commercial form of saccharine, but not the purified form. Schardein leaves it as “possible contaminant of manufacturing.” Sounds like your doctor was being cautious (assuming s/he knew of that study). Personally it is not something I’d worry about.

    Mind, I like that saccharine bitterness. :)

    Re: stevia, I haven’t researched it. Gary Taubes in this past Sunday’s NY Times Magazine was touting it as “safe and natural.” Sign.

    PS – I forgot to say that I really like Harriet’s article here and plan to incorporate elements into our class if I may?

  18. Harriet Hall says:

    @michele,

    Saccharin does cross the placenta, but there’s no evidence that it harms the fetus. Her doctor was using the precautionary principle. In the absence of any good studies during pregnancy, that’s a reasonable approach. A review article in American Family Physician doesn’t prohibit it but it agrees with the American Dietetic Association in recommending “caution.” The evidence level for that recommendation is only a “C” level, meaning it is not based on any patient-oriented evidence. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/0401/p1307.html

  19. Harriet Hall says:

    @Angora Rabbit,

    ” plan to incorporate elements into our class if I may?”

    Of course you may!

  20. thatguybil81 says:

    @draal

    Those evil Hallogens… chloride and iodine

  21. Pieter B says:

    Because the fructose percentage of agave nectar begins at the high end of high-fructose corn syrup and goes way up from there, I’ve taken to referring to it as “HFCS” and when questioned I say that stands for “high-fructose cactus syrup.”

  22. QuickMedical says:

    No matter how many studies are completed proving the chemical makeup of an artificial sweetener is safe to eat; we will never know for sure. Everything is subject to human bias and error, so try eating naturally occurring foods and everyone is in the clear!

  23. ConspicuousCarl says:

    QuickMedical on 04 Oct 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Everything is subject to human bias and error, so try eating naturally occurring foods and everyone is in the clear!

    Human bias and error, such as the irrational belief that “natural” things are better.

  24. Harriet Hall says:

    @QuickMedical,

    ” try eating naturally occurring foods and everyone is in the clear!”

    False assumption. No matter how many studies are completed we will never know for sure that any naturally occurring food is safe. In fact, we know that some naturally occurring foods are not safe for some individuals, and we suspect that some naturally occurring foods may not be safe for anyone in large amounts.

    I hope you have not fallen prey to the “natural fallacy.”

  25. Khym Chanur says:

    No matter how many studies are completed proving the chemical makeup of an artificial sweetener is safe to eat; we will never know for sure. Everything is subject to human bias and error, so try eating naturally occurring foods and everyone is in the clear!

    Hemlock is natural, but it sure isn’t safe. If you mean to say that over thousands of years the unsafe foods would have been weeded out via direct experience and trial-and-error, then you run into the same problem that humans are prone to bias and error.

  26. tmac57 says:

    When I was about 6 years old,I was walking down the street eating a peach. I was nearly finished with it,and gnawing the last bits of fruit off the pit when I accidentally swallowed the peach pit. The pit got wedged in my throat,and I began to panic and turned blue,unable to breath. I finally managed to cough up the pit,and collapsed on the ground gasping for air.
    The peach was all natural…but on the other hand,it did have fructose in it…hmmmm
    This was a true story.

  27. Lytrigian says:

    It’s the taste for me more than anything else. Artificial sweeteners and HFCS taste different from cane sugar. Both aspartame and saccharin taste vile to me. Better to eat less sweetened food overall than substitute them for sugar, as far as I’m concerned. HFCS-sweetened food doesn’t actually taste bad, but the difference is noticeable and is the reason some people in my area prefer Mexican-made Coca-Cola to the domestic product. Pepsi now has “retro” versions of its products for those who prefer sugar to HFCS too.

    As far as “naturally occurring foods” go: Peanuts are natural, but they’re dangerous for anyone allergic to them.

  28. Mark Crislip says:

    Beer and bread are derived from yeast excrement.
    Mmmmmmmm yeast excrement.

    And I hope it becomes genetically modified sooner rather than later:

    Sheng Wu Gong Cheng Xue Bao. 2007 Nov;23(6):1071-6.
    [Improvement of beer anti-staling capability by genetically modifying industrial brewing yeast with high glutathione content].

  29. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    The advice to eat only naturally occurring foods would rule out most kinds of meat (most cattle and fowl meat we eat is not naturally occurring) except if it derives from a dead animal found in its natural environment, a rotting cadaver, in other words.

    Fishes caught by nets or fishing rods might be considered natural but the method to catch them is dubious. And fish from fish farms are just as unnatural as all those unnatural cows.

    Also one should abstain from corn and wheat products and generally any vegetable obtained from farms. Anything planted by a human or a machine is taboo (the nut trees growing from nuts hidden by squirrels are of course exempt from the taboo). My lawn has a bunch of fly agarics (Amanita muscaria) growing there naturally, so I guess it’s OK to eat these (you might object that it is not food, but it is: Siberian shamans eat it to get high and I am told that lower ranking believers still get high from the urine of shamans who have eaten fly agarics).

    The water from the tap is certainly not natural: it has been pumped from the ground (at least where I live) by unnatural pumps and then subjected to purification processes which are not natural and finally pumped by unnatural pumps through unnatural pipes and they pass through unnatural taps as well – yikes! How can anyone with his natural mind in the right place dare to touch the stuff!

    No, pute nature lovers should drink from natural puddles when it rains. Storing natural water in rain barrels is an unnatural act which should abhorrent to any nature lover. I am surprised that it is not forbidden in all major religions.

    Pure nature lovers should avoid the use of stoves and ovens and knives to cut the food. It’s OK to prepare things on naturally occurring fires (not forest fires caused by humans) but exploding volcanoes are fine.

    But wait a moment!

    try eating naturally occurring foods

    .

    I not only try to do that, I actually do. Sometimes I eat some blackberries growing along the road, in August of every year. So I am in the clear. Saved by the occasional natural food. You can do the same. You don’t have to actually eat them, just trying to find them (i.e. looking around you to see if there is a sweet chestnut tree) should suffice.

    But was the advice of QuickMedical serious? It is probably some kind of humor, like The Onion or the NewsBiscuit, see
    http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2011/09/09/homeopathic-leak-threatens-catastrophe/

  30. TsuDhoNimh says:

    HFCS is 55% fructose. Sucrose (table sugar) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Honey is 50% fructose.

    And the expensive “Agave Nectar” being sold in crunchy-granola supermarkets as a health-promoting sweetener has more fructose than HFC! One source gives 92% fructose and 8% glucose; another gives 56% fructose and 20% glucose. But that’s OK, because it comes from a plant, or is processed by brown people, or something.

    BTW, it was the great tequila boom and bust that led to Agave Nectar. Thousands of acres of agaves were/are reaching their point of no return and the tequila warehouses were full of stuff that wasn’t selling. The growers had to do something with them or lose their shirts. So they cranked up commercial production of what had been a local sweetener, doused it with pixie dust and started selling. It’s the same method as sugar production, but you stop sooner when it’s still syrup.

    C&H is a major name in the Agave nectar industry …

  31. @ HH and Angora Rabbit, thanks for covering the saccharin and pregnancy issue. It’s good to be better informed.

    Mark Crislip@ I have a good natural remedy to prevent stale beer. Don’t spill it, Don’t leave it setting around. Beer is made to drink, darn it.

    Probably I’m tired* but the purpose of beer that doesn’t stale as quickly escapes me. A possible delay in the stink of stale beer after a party?

    But slower staling bread, that sounds good.

    *due to being up in the middle of the night to feed a baby deer mouse. I’m pretty sure medical folks will have no sympathy, but I’m a sleep deprivation whimp.

  32. TsuDhoNimh
    “HFCS is 55% fructose. Sucrose (table sugar) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Honey is 50% fructose.
    And the expensive “Agave Nectar” being sold in crunchy-granola supermarkets as a health-promoting sweetener has more fructose than HFC! One source gives 92% fructose and 8% glucose; another gives 56% fructose and 20% glucose. But that’s OK, because it comes from a plant, or is processed by brown people, or something.”

    Okay, I have to admit, when ever someone starts talking about fructose, sucrose, glucose, I get completely lost. I will have to look up a link for sugar for dummies.

    I buy the big old bags of sugar in the grocery store. The are produced locally, so I’m assuming they are from sugar beets, not sugar cane. I like this because it’s local, (support local jobs, lower fuel consumption) and my mom grew up on a farm that grew sugar beets, so it reminds me of her stories.

    Sometimes I buy coarse ground cane sugar, because it makes a lovely crunchy topping on a pie or shortbread.

    Some sort of liquid sugar is nice for adding to yogurt, asian sauces, mojitos, etc. Honey is annoying, too sticky. Ditto corn syrup (best use, pecan pie). Haven’t tried agave, except in tequila form. I think simple syrup is possibly the best option.

    I admit, When dealing with food, I’d rather keep my focus on the sensory quality of the foods. I find The idea of good food and bad foods, and the whole selling foods and drinks with special claims of “healing qualities” to be a complete turn off.

    This leaves me with a confusingly anti-science, pro-science additude.

    But I did enjoy the article.

  33. LovleAnjel says:

    @micheleinmichigan

    The anti-staling beer would be for my husband, whole insists on pouring himself a fresh glass shortly before passing out.

  34. QuickMedical says:

    Thanks for all the constructive comments! :)

    I will admit I’m undertaking the assumption that natural foods are better than processed foods for a variety of reasons. This rule does not work in every example that the human mind can imagine as many of you brought about valid points. I simply meant to point out that the natural foods of the world (veggies and yes, even meats) should provide the body with everything it needs. Understanding most Americans do not live a lifestyle similar to this, enriched and processed foods are consumed more frequently due to their price and availability.

    Choking on a peach pit seems traumatic; although based on that story I wouldn’t recommend excluding peaches just because you might die from swallowing the pit! In any case, natural foods are better! Of course allergies to certain types of natural foods may prevent humans from regularly consuming them (bummer). Hemlock is not good for you, this is clear. I’m not recommending eating poisons here.

    Jan Willem Nienhuys, you seem to be interpreting my “natural foods” statement as one of a caveman! No stoves! That’s crazy! In 2011 we can eat organic foods and organic meats and cook them with on man-made devices using technology. Eat healthy, cook how you please.

  35. Chris says:

    Quickmedical:

    I will admit I’m undertaking the assumption that natural foods are better than processed foods for a variety of reasons. …..I simply meant to point out that the natural foods of the world (veggies and yes, even meats) should provide the body with everything it needs.

    You might do some research on how much processing is required to get nutrition out of several foods in the world. In the American Southwest alkali processing of corn to free the niacin has been used for centuries (nixtamalization). Cassava needs to be treated to remove toxins, and there are many other examples.

    Also, many fruits and vegetables contain lots of sugars. Which if you noticed upthread they contain enough that someone with diabetes needed to be careful with consuming those “healthy” things. And I have spent a couple of days using an apple peeler/corer/slicer that clamps to my table</a? to prepare my tree apples for freezing and apple sauce. It tends to spray juice, so the floor, table and myself became very sticky. Fortunately white vinegar (a very processed form of fruit juice) cleaned it up.

    Being a gardener and serious cook, I think one needs to be a bit more precise when using the term "process" in regards to food. Some people have told me they do not use processed food, and yet readily provide recipes that use tofu! (this once included a raw food enthusiast!)

  36. Chris says:

    I hate HTML screw ups! We can has comment preview please?

  37. JPZ says:

    Do you ever get the weird feeling that the more something like aspartame gets studied, the more it makes some people dubious of its safety? It is like they are collecting anecdotes among the data and putting them all together into some scary picture. The more studies, the more anecdotes, the more panic. I wonder if these are the same people who are happy to point to one bad study to back up their opinion and are bizarrely reassured that it is only one study.

  38. tmac57 says:

    JPZ-
    Nah! That would be cherry picking.No one in their right mind would do that !
    Right?

  39. Lytrigian says:

    “Probably I’m tired* but the purpose of beer that doesn’t stale as quickly escapes me. A possible delay in the stink of stale beer after a party?”

    Beer can go stale and “skunky” in the bottle. Beer that doesn’t stale as quickly has a longer shelf life.

  40. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Quickmedical should look up favism (also known as glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency). Also, contemplate the fact that nearly everything you buy in a supermarket (or roadside stalls, grow from seeds, and chances are, harvest in the wild) has been subjected to selective breeding for thousands of years.

    Most meats, before modern breeding and medications, were infested with parasites that would naturally kill you.

    Smallpox, also natural.

    Cooking food is not natural, but it increases the nutritional value of meat, eggs, and numerous fruits and vegetables via improved bioavailability.

    Goiters are natural evidence that eating locally produced, natural foods can be hazardous to your health.

    Nature doesn’t “provide” for humans. As omnivores, our ability to consume a wide variety of food sources is due to evolutionary processes expanding our diet from the plant-base of our common ancestor shared with chimps. Much of the original meat in our ancestors’ diet would have been scavenged, and thus near-rotten (but tender due to the activity of enzymes post-mortem). Humans evolved to take advantage of whatever foods existed in our environment, nature didn’t change to ensure we had enough food (unless you consider selective breeding by humans part of nature – which is defensible).

    Nature doesn’t provide, nature exists. Agriculture and the Haber process provides.

    A rational system based on scientific study is a far more likely path to success than the jingoist assumption that nature loves us.

    Eating minimally processed, home-made foods using whole ingredients has numerous benefits, but is no panacea and will not guarantee good health, long life or a cancer-free existence. You don’t die from eating frozen pizza or canned soup. Fetishization of “natural” food reduces the ability of humans overall to feed themselves, reduces the variety of foods available, and has more in common with religious dietary purity laws than a sensible approach to eating.

    Nature doesn’t love us. If every single human died today, if everything but humans died today, either way the planet still spins about its axis while it orbits the sun, which spins in a relatively uninteresting arm of the galaxy which is engaged in an elaborate dance with all the other galaxies that exist in the universe. We are a thin green scum on a colossal ball of volcanic rock that routinely cracks itself open and kills millions in utter indifference to our wants and needs.

    Eat natural my ass.

  41. @Lytrigian

    Ohhh, I see. I should have gotten that it was a shelf life thing.

  42. WLU “Eat natural my ass.”

    I thought we already covered the dangers of cannibalism.

  43. tmac57 says:

    michele-You have lost all of your beer street cred ;)

  44. WLU, possibly QuickMedical is NOT going off the deep end of the naturalist fallacy, as you assume. It’s easy to read too much into a sentence and assume people are making the same argument that one has read previously from other commentors, when they may not be.

    Regardless, it seems that a short suggestion to try to eat natural, could possibly qualify for an initial enquiry as to the specifics of what the commenter considers natural and what they mean by try.

    Perhaps it’s possibly to try diplomacy before launching a anti-naturalist fallacy carpet bombing campaign. Some people respond to a polite disagreement quite well.

    And I must have missed the part were QuickMedical said that natural foods were a cure-all, cancer preventing panacea. Could be a straw man you are building there.

    Also, I was the one who commented positively on buying local. I didn’t suggest one should buy EXCLUSIVELY local. So no concerns for goiters are needed.

  45. @tmac57 – hehe, my high school biology teacher once said ‘there are no stupid questions’. It seems I’ve worked my whole life to prove him wrong.

  46. JPZ says:

    @micheleinmichigan

    In all fairness to WLU, QuickMedical did say “…and everyone is in the clear” to imply that natural foods are always safe.

  47. QuickMedical says:

    Haha. That was a great rant; a little of topic but interesting.

    Cheers!

  48. @JPZ, I don’t want to be unfair to WLU, who often posts entertaining and thoughtful comments.

    But I do think that “in the clear” is pretty vague, without previous knowledge of the commenters opinions, I personally wouldn’t interpret it to mean ‘completely exempt from future illness.’

    If paleo-diet dude (who’s name I don’t recall) had posted the comment, the heat would certainly have been warranted, but in this case, ehhhh? Would a little moderation/building bridges with a newer commenter hurt?

    But, I don’t want to harp… WLU, may be just having a bad day.

  49. JPZ says:

    @micheleinmichigan

    No problem – I agree it is better to educate new folk than flame them. I just remember reading QuickMedical’s comment and thinking “Seriously?” (which could just be me reading things into his comment too). I do appreciate that you speak up when people criticize what they think someone said rather than what they said!

  50. phantomsnowball says:

    I think commenters are missing the point about HFCF. It’s not that the heavily processes sugar HFCF is any more or less healthy than table sugar, honey, or agave (which I do have misgivings about), it is that HFCF tends to be found in heavily processed foods, which in themselves are heavily consumed by the American public. This consumption, in turn, is indicative of eating a diet that is reduced in minimally processed foods and whole foods (i.e. whole grains and vegetables) and an increase in sugar, fat, and calorie intake.

    The evidence and advice given by dietitians to eat a healthy diet has been pretty clear and homogeneous over the century getting refined year after year with new evidence, eat a diet mostly of whole, minimally processed food with limited added oils and sugars which can include some HFCF and sucrose but not to the extent that society as a whole consumes now.

    Plus, the issue of HFCF goes beyond human health. It includes politics, agriculture, subsidies, genetic modification, environmental health, and probably a dozen other issues I can’t bring to mind at this time of day.

  51. Chris says:

    Quickmedical:

    Oh, this may be of interest to ya’ll.

    Oooh! Books on diets that actually really just restrict calories. Big whoop.

    Yeah, the latter one was just Atkins without the dairy. So what was the average lifespan of a “caveman”? Last I heard they were the Neanderthals, and they died out from competition form homo sapiens (who did not live in caves in Africa).

  52. nitpicking says:

    It’s a very small point, but my sources say honey is 55-60% fructose, not 50%. And a small percentage of other (non-glucose) sugars like sucrose and maltose.

  53. Quill says:

    Thank you Dr. Hall for this concise and informative post. This kind of reason and writing is exactly the reason I started to read this blog. Now I know I avoid aspartame for exactly the right reason: I simply don’t care for the way it tastes.

  54. AHodges says:

    QuickMedical, perhaps it would have been better to suggest choosing groceries from the outer aisles of the supermarket. That’s one way to look at healthy eating, rather than saying “natural.” I avoid as many processed foods as I can, but I’m certainly not obsessive about it.

    Recently, a friend was talking about her healthy vegan diet and how she took a shot of wheatgrass juice from her local health food store. I couldn’t help but bring up the fact that wheatgrass doesn’t actually do much for humans and that she could get more nutrients in a better tasting package by eating other types of veggies. She didn’t like that suggestion and got all defensive, which is pretty common amongst people who happily deny science in favor of current trends. At any rate, I’m glad to have found likeminded folks here at SBM.

  55. shawmutt says:

    “The US banned its import in 1991 as a food additive, but the 1994 Diet Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) legalized its sale as a dietary supplement.”

    That’s just awesome. It really makes a person wonder how safe all those other “all natural” dietary supplements are.

  56. DugganSC says:

    Personally, I’ve found that I’ve got close to a 100% success rate at identifying a soft drink as the diet variety based on a sudden onset of tinnitus (in the form of intermittent rushing sounds in my ear) but that seems highly idiosyncratic. Overall, as with one of the other posters above, I look at the amount of calories in the sugar I consume and shrug because really, the difference isn’t all that much. But, then again, I’m not a big soda person. I find it too sweet and cloying in general.

    And I remember the birth defects warning being given to me by my Mom as a kid. She still doesn’t use artificial sweeteners, but I think it’s shifting more towards “the sugar tastes better and isn’t harmful unless really overdone”, the philosophy she follows for most food consumption. It’s like that old saying goes, “You know you’re old when you remember when bacon, eggs, and sunshine were good for you.”

  57. stanmrak says:

    Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by the regulatory agencies of more than ninety countries worldwide, with FDA officials describing aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut.”

    Good god! Do you actually believe ANYTHING the FDA says? (at least you put quotes around their statements!) The FDA’s clients are the drug industry, not the public. This is what they told Dr. David Graham when he blew the whistle on Vioxx. Aspartame was approved via a back-door deal involving their then-CEO Donald Rumsfield (you know, the guy who lied to us about Iraq WMD) and Ronald Reagan; they didn’t have the science to get it approved. You don’t need science when you have the politicians in your back pocket.

  58. Chris says:

    Oh, wow, stanmrak provides proof through conspiracy theory. How droll.

  59. RichMurray says:

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    He has been sharing his research with me since 1999, including parts
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    1. Monte WC. Aspartame; Methanol and the Public Health. Journal of
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    Rich Murray, MA
    Boston University Graduate School 1967 psychology,
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    254-A Donax Avenue, Imperial Beach, CA 91932
    rmforall@gmail.com
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    1. Harriet Hall says:

      @RichMurray,

      I read chapter 12. It was painful. Monte’s book is not a reliable source. He fails to understand some of the basic principles of science, for instance “the poison is in the dose,” “correlation doesn’t prove causation,” and “people are not giant rodents.” He engages in misrepresentation and distortion of published data, and speculation based on correlations. He doesn’t balance his cherry-picked studies with studies that contradict his beliefs. He presents no evidence that aspartame has any significant clinical adverse effects in humans at typical levels of ingestion. Nuff said.

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