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Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.

There are also hundreds of websites dedicated to smearing this much abused food additive. One site, run by Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responds to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:

I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.

The statement that “nothing will ever convince me” is a huge red flag that someone is defending an ideological position, one immune to evidence or reason. Admittedly, in context it could be a clumsy statement that something is very unlikely. It would be very difficult to convince me that the earth is flat – I’m really saying that the existence evidence is overwhelming that the earth is not flat. But that is not what Dr. Hull is saying. She is specifically saying that she will dismiss any evidence that is contrary to her belief that aspartame is not safe on the a-priori basis that such disconfirming evidence is part of a vast conspiracy.

Of course, Dr. Hull also sells an aspartame detox kit, which might lead a cynical person to conclude that she cares more about selling alternative health products and stoking her sales with some unreasonable fear than about scientific evidence.

What evidence does she have for such a conspiracy? The argument from final consequences logical fallacy – big industry wouldn’t want it. It’s also not very plausible. Products get pulled from the market all the time when new evidence suggests they are not safe. Also, the final safety net for the consumer is legal liability. Class action law suits have bankrupted companies, even when the underlying claims were false. Imagine if they were true. Look how much the tobacco industry has had to fork over.

Now I am not arguing that corporations are all good corporate citizens or wouldn’t dream of sweeping some inconvenient evidence under the carpet. But I am saying that a decades long conspiracy among industry, federal regulatory agencies, the medical community, and multiple research institutions and individual researchers – all under the nose of the press and lawyers looking for big class-action suits – is implausible in the extreme. I am also arguing that we should fairly assess all the evidence, not just cherry pick the evidence we like and dismiss the rest out of hand.

What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:

The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

Multiple reviews, going back to 1985, conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries (how big is this conspiracy?), showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer, and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.

Like all such research, there is noise in the data (but no apparent signal). There is no pattern of evidence to suggest that aspartame causes cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disease, diabetes, or anything else its critics claim. What legitimate scientific controversy there is comes from the animal data, mostly in rats. Here the evidence for a carcinogenic or genotoxic (causing changes in the DNA) effect of aspartame is mixed and requires careful review. Some effects, such as a dose-dependent effect on renal tumors, are specific to rats and do not translate to humans. Other studies are plagued by significant flaws, such as properly calculating doses (a big issue when trying to extrapolate doses from rats to humans). And still others show flat effects without a dose response curve, suggesting that a confounding factor, and not aspartame, is responsible for any observed increase in tumors.

For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently reviewed a 2005 study by the European Ramazzini Foundation of aspartame in rats showing increases in various neoplasms. They found multiple significant flaws, as described above, and concluded:

The data on total malignant tumours do not provide evidence of a carcinogenic potential of aspartame.

As I have noted before – you have to interpret a literature, not a single study. The results of one lab or one study can be erroneous. When decades have produced hundreds of studies on a question, the cherry pickers will always have a lot to choose from. That is why systematic reviews are necessary, and it is also necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of research. In this case studies in humans have found no cancer risk from aspartame. Animals studies are problematic and have produced mixed results, but no clear evidence of a neoplastic risk.

A separate question is whether or not aspartame causes headaches in some people. While there is not a lot of specific data on this, there are case reports of aspartame triggering migraines in susceptible people. Migraineurs frequently have multiple food triggers, and there is a long list of foods known to be potential migraine triggers. This is not evidence for toxicity. So while evidence is lacking to demonstrate aspartame is a headache trigger, this is not implausible and not particularly worrisome. What I recommend to patients with frequent headaches is to keep a headache diary, rather than trusting to memory (and confirmation bias) to detect real associations. If there is a clear pattern between a potential trigger and headaches, then avoid that trigger.

Yet another distinct question about artificial sweeteners (not just aspartame) is whether or not they contribute to obesity by interfering with brain’s association between sweetness and calories. The theory is that using zero-calorie sweeteners dissociates the sensation of sweetness from caloric intake, so that sweetness will cause less satiety, leading to increases in overall sugar and calorie consumption.

The question of aspartame and weight control is a complex one, and can be approached from many research angles. Here is a recent review of research. At present the question is very much unsettled. It seems that there is no significant metabolic and no demonstrated neuronal effect from artificial sweeteners. However, people who knowingly consume diet drinks do tend to overcompensate by consuming greater calories overall. While studies of substituting aspartame for sugar in a blinded fashion show that calories are reduced, contributing to weight loss.

By my reading, the current summary of available research is that consuming calories in drinks contributes to weight gain and obesity, substituting calorie-free drinks (whether water or diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners) does help reduce caloric intake and aid in weight control, but there is a tendency to overcompensate by increasing other caloric intake. Therefore it seems reasonable to use artificial sweeteners to reduce caloric intake from drinks, but to be careful to control overall caloric intake (so no, putting aspartame in your coffee does not mean you can eat the cheesecake).

Conclusion

Aspartame is a highly studied food additive with decades of research showing that it is safe for human consumption. As expected, the research is complex making it possible to cherry pick and misinterpret individual studies in order to fear monger. But the totality of research, reviewed by many independent agencies and expert panels, supports the safety of aspartame.

A conspiracy to hide the risks of aspartame, however, remains a popular internet urban legend that will likely not disappear anytime soon.

Posted in: Public Health

Leave a Comment (67) ↓

67 thoughts on “Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Back in the day I drank the Kool-Aid containing cyclamate. It never harmed a flea, but the USA still bans it. Why oh why? The conspiracy against sodium N-cyclohexylsulfamate is very real.

  2. MKirschMD says:

    I am waiting to hear that oxygen is toxic and should be regulated.

  3. woo-fu says:

    Aspartame triggers my migraines, but so does red wine. Aspartame also tastes somewhat metallic to me. That gives me at least two reasons to avoid but not fear it.

    On the other hand, I have a relative with phenylketonuria who went into a bad seizure soon after aspartame was approved for diet soda. This was before the FDA required labels that stated aspartame was a source of phenylalinine. People with PKU don’t have the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalinine properly. This is a real medical problem which the FDA addressed.

    However, the other problem is packaging and marketing. It’s difficult to find sugar-free chewing gum, for example, without at least some aspartame, even if the front cover says “made with xylitol,” and my eyes have a hard time reading the itty-bitty print on the back. There have been at least a couple of times I got a nasty surprise from the nearly hidden ingredient.

  4. David Gorski says:

    I am waiting to hear that oxygen is toxic and should be regulated.

    But it is toxic, as you know. Patients on ventilators receiving greater than 50% oxygen suffer oxygen-induced pulmonary damage…

  5. Davros says:

    This is a nice article… there’s so much garbage about aspartame floating around that it can be impossible to figure it out. Diet pop has helped me lose weight, or so I had THOUGHT, so its nice to hear it isn’t going to strangle my pets during the night.

  6. Scott says:

    However, the other problem is packaging and marketing … my eyes have a hard time reading the itty-bitty print on the back. There have been at least a couple of times I got a nasty surprise from the nearly hidden ingredient.

    I would suggest that you complain to the FDA about that, if you haven’t already done so. As I understand it, they do have the authority to determine that the information isn’t sufficiently prominent. Reports that people have difficulty finding it even if they’re looking ought to be taken seriously in that regard.

    If nobody says anything about it, it’s hard for them to know that people in the real world have trouble seeing the labels…

  7. dr.hawk says:

    The scare tactics used by so many health and nutrition “experts” concerning Aspartame and other similar additives is very misleading and truly annoying. I did though come across a study regarding sweeteners and preterm delivery from a fairly reputable source. As an avid reader of SBM blog I would be interested in getting your take on that.

    -Intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks and risk of preterm delivery: a prospective cohort study of 59,334 Danish pregnant women

    Am J Clin Nutr (June 30, 2010). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28968

  8. Ash says:

    While some parts of the EFSA critique of the Ramazzini study weren’t very convincing to me, I’ve become a bit skeptical of any results from the Ramazzini Foundation. I looked at a pile of studies on different substances on their website, and every single one I looked at showed a positive result for carcinogenicity. That leads me to suspect there is an issue with either their study design or interpretation of results. At worst, even if their positive result is real, a main difference between their study design and typical cancer assays is that they use full lifetime exposure (birth to death) instead of starting with rats a few weeks old. Maybe this suggests we shouldn’t be giving babies aspartame – but who in their right mind would do that anyhow?

    I do get headaches from aspartame – purely anecdotal of course, but it’s pretty consistent, including a couple of times when I had a bad headache and only found out afterward that I’d consumed something with aspartame – but I don’t think that means there is serious toxicity at normal exposures. I just avoid it myself (I also avoid Splenda, but that’s mainly because I don’t like the taste).

  9. vdw says:

    While I quite readily avoid aspartame- sweetened products thanks to the taste alone (an unpleasant metallic tint) and are in no particular need of diet- or light- variety of food and drink, I’m still slightly curious as to the frequency and severity of reported allergic reactions correlated to the substance.

  10. arjuna79 says:

    **anecdote warning**
    Back in the 80′s I had partial complex seizures – somewhat controlled – and aspartame would trigger them. I certainly didn’t need to be ingesting anything that was going to get that going. And after my seizure disorder resolved – I still stayed away from it. Not the buzz my brain wants to remember!

  11. qetzal says:

    I am waiting to hear that oxygen is toxic and should be regulated.

    And it’s also FDA-regulated, at least when it’s used as a medical gas.

  12. Josie says:

    It’s difficult to find sugar-free chewing gum, for example, without at least some aspartame, even if the front cover says “made with xylitol,”

    I am surprised sugar alcohols like xylitol aren’t more reviled than aspartame since they can bring on the shootie poops.

    It’s interesting that the ‘fear’ is more directed at aspartame and its alleged long term non-specific effect rather than a sugar alcohol that can bring on an immediate and embarrassing result.

  13. Harriet Hall says:

    A reader sent me a newspaper ad for stevia that claims that aspartame:

    1. Is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria.
    2. Breaks down in the body into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
    3. Accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, miograines, dizziness, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.

    Steve, could you comment on how much of this is true and why it’s not worrisome?

  14. xwolp says:

    “aspartame [...] Is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria.”

    I love how this is supposed to be an argument, gleefully ignoring the multitude of drugs that are produced exactly that way.

  15. Thomathy says:

    “Back in the day I drank the Kool-Aid containing cyclamate. It never harmed a flea, but the USA still bans it. Why oh why? The conspiracy against sodium N-cyclohexylsulfamate is very real.”

    I had no idea that it’s banned in the US. I live in Canada and the stuff is seen everywhere coffee is sold. Only I find it has the most wretched aftertaste, so I don’t touch the stuff.

    Actually, I find most of the artificial sweeteners (though not Splenda) to have forbidding aftertastes.

    Perhaps if people really have a problem with artificial sugars, they should just stop eating them instead of inventing conspiracy theories about how they’re evil, but that’s a Super Secret™? No? Alright.

  16. Angora Rabbit says:

    Ah, Aspartame. What a fun topic. Overall a very nice review of the subject. I can’t believe that MS spam is still circulating despite Snopes.

    Some years ago my students covered the Aspartame / migraine topic for their term papers and the upshot was that blinded studies have been done and no link was identified. It was a placebo effect. See Schiffman et al. 1987 for an example. Because aspartame can break down, maybe the writers here are responding to decomposition products?

    Dr. Hall asked about the claim:
    2. Breaks down in the body into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.

    This is correct, but we have pathways to metabolize one-carbon units (folate, Vitamins B6 and B12), and we produce far greater levels than would be present in the food product, so it is a non-issue.

    Cyclamates were banned (I am old enough to remember Tab and Fresca) because they were shown to cause cancer in rats if you force the poor thing to eat 0.25% of its body weight daily as cyclamate, or shove a large waxy cyclamate pellet into its bladder Bryan & Ertuk 1970). Because of the 1958 Delaney Amendment banning carcinogenic additives to food at any dose, cyclamates were banned. Saccharine replaced it, but by golly you could force the animal model to be carcinogenic again (this time at 5% of diet). It was going to be banned in 1977, but there was a big public outcry. Saccharine to my knowledge is the only approved exception to the Delaney Amendment and required Congressional action for approval.

    My only complaint, Steve, is that you say early on that “Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe.” That is not my experience as a nutrition professional, nor is it consistent with the position of the American Dietetics Association. Alas, “nutritionist” is not a regulated title and any dingbat could hang a shingle claiming to be one (and many dingbats do). You are a great writer and doing a great job with this blog. Please don’t do the profession a disservice by painting all of us with the same brush.

    Indeed, this is taken from the American Dietetics Association position paper on sweeteners (JADA, 2004; downloaded as a PDF from eatright.org, the Association’s website):
    “It is the position of The American Dietetic Association that consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners when consumed in a diet that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Dietary References
    Intakes, as well as individual health goals.” PDF page 10 of the report specifically covers aspartame and states it is safe, with the caveats for those with PKU.

    Regarding Dr. Janet Starr Hull, I can only say that she wasn’t our student. :)

  17. jocorok says:

    The most annoying to me is, one can’t find un-sweetened drinks. I like sour/fresh drinks. I’d like a coke with no sugar and no artificial sweeteners. Nearly every drink but water is sweet.

  18. vicki says:

    How do the “avoid aspartame and your MS will be cured” people explain serious cases of that disease that happened before aspartame was introduced?

    I don’t like aspartame personally, because I suspect I may be in that part of the population that get headaches from it. Since I don’t _need_ aspartame, I avoid it rather than continuing to collect data on my own reactions. (If I had to stop or seriously cut down on consuming sugar, I might re-investigate.)

    I would like to see better labeling, and I really don’t like the number of products that are sweetened with both sugar and aspartame. I assume there’s some benefit in terms of flavor, production expense, or ability to claim lower calories, but it also maximizes the number of people who might have problems from consuming them, deliberately or accidentally.

  19. trrll says:

    Bacteria excrement? That’s disgusting! I’d sooner eat the menstrual discharge of an oviparous fowl!

  20. Harlo says:

    I can speak from personal experience that aspartame gives me what I can only assume is a migraine headache. I don’t suffer from them normally but when I had my first few Diet Cokes ever it didn’t take long. Besides, it tastes nasty to me. The metallic taste that others describe is something I wouldn’t want to “grow accustomed to” as many consumers claim they have. I’m sure I could learn to tolerate plenty of unpleasant things as we humans are a very adaptable species, but when there’s essentially nothing wrong with real sugar, why would you? The only reason aspartame exists is because manufacturers, in an attempt to shave bucks off production at the expense of public health, created high fructose corn syrup to replace sugar. It’s far worse for you to consume than healthy doses of real sugar. Worse than that? It’s addictive. I’m not saying I completely avoid HFCS because it’s nearly impossible, but at least I don’t get a blinding headache as a result of consumption.

    I realize this is all a bit of a tangent since the real issue is does aspartame give you lupus or other ridiculous claims. Short answer, no, most like not. It doesn’t make me trust it as additive any more. Blinding headaches and metallic aftertaste aside, I prefer natural solutions over chemical any day of the week.

  21. mikerattlesnake says:

    1) yeah, e. coli is a pretty versatile little bug that can be made to shoot a number of beneficial things out of it’s “out” end.

    2) These mostly sound like things that are either produced by the body or are not toxic to the body (at low doses). Good to know if you’re allergic to any of them, but pretty meaningless otherwise.

    3) I would need to see the source for this statistic to derive any meaning from it. As it is, it’s self-reported reactions, including things that don’t seem to be correlated with aspartame consumption, so human error by people scared of the aspartame bogeyman could be a factor.

  22. Ash says:

    Harriet, I think the adverse reactions reported to FDA are no different than adverse reactions reported to VAERS for vaccine – they don’t necessarily mean that aspartame caused the adverse effect, just that someone had some sort of adverse effect at some point after consuming a product with aspartame. Also, by far the largest number of complaints were for headaches.

    While adverse reactions reported to FDA may be a guide for what safety studies should look for, I’d rather rely on properly designed scientific studies than those reports when making a determination about whether something is safe – just like Jenny McCarthy saying her kid got autism from vaccines isn’t going to stop me from vaccinating my kids.

  23. Scott says:

    The only reason aspartame exists is because manufacturers, in an attempt to shave bucks off production at the expense of public health, created high fructose corn syrup to replace sugar. It’s far worse for you to consume than healthy doses of real sugar. Worse than that? It’s addictive.

    You should take a look at:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=6501

    Essentially, none of this is true. And aspartame has major advantages over sugar or HFCS in that it provides the desired flavor without all the calories…

  24. Maz says:

    Dr. Novella,

    I haven’t even started reading this article and I want to thank you for it. Specifically, I like that you called the article Truth vs. Fiction instead of Fact vs. Fiction.

    People who think science is just a collection of facts are looking at it the wrong way — science is the search for Truth and the attempt to identify fiction. Facts can change when new evidence/techniques arise, the process of seeking the Truth is constant.

  25. Ken Hamer says:

    “Alas, “nutritionist” is not a regulated title and any dingbat could hang a shingle claiming to be one (and many dingbats do).”

    Here’s one comedian’s take on “nutritionist”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIaV8swc-fo

    You can get to the “nutritionist” part starting at 3:45

  26. montos says:

    I wonder at what sort of daily intake of aspartame the studies look at. From what I’ve read I can accept that at standard doses from an average diet aspartame appears safe.

    When I was in university I knew people that would drink in the range of 2 litres of coke daily. One would think that there would be some sort of sequelae to intakes such as this.
    I mean if it were regular soda with sugar you would be an obese type II diabetic in no time.

    I would think that the variability in doses from person to person would be somewhat of a confounding factor in proving aspartame to be 100% safe in any long term study.

    I also think the problem with HFCS is the ubiquity of it. That and the fact we’ve come to see it as normal to chug back 24 oz of coke as a legitimate way of quenching your thirst.

    Jocorok,
    I have the same problem, everything you see on the shelf either contains sugar or sweetener. When you can find it, why don’t you try Perrier or other sparkling water? I find it a nice substitute.

  27. Angora Rabbit says:

    Montos wondered: “I wonder at what sort of daily intake of aspartame the studies look at.” and “I would think that the variability in doses from person to person would be somewhat of a confounding factor in proving aspartame to be 100% safe in any long term study.”

    Right, and these are great points. They are the same questions that FDA would ask as part of the review process prior to approval, and I think you’ll find your answers if you go digging the primary literature. The rat cancer studies of aspartame were some fantastical amount amounting to hundreds and more of 12oz drinks daily. And don’t forget that the major components are aspartate and phenylalanine, both of which are just amino acids. Aspartate is plentiful and we make far more of it daily than one could ever consume from aspartame. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid and your blood levels from your own diet and proteins is far in excess of what aspartame could ever provide. So my question is, what exactly are we supposed to be worried about with this stuff?

    Speaking of HFCS, did anyone else see the Well Blog at NY Times yesterday? Apparently the HFCS manufacturers are petitioning FDA for a name change to “Corn Sugar.” A rose by any other name…

  28. alibim says:

    That scare-tactics e-mail is doing the rounds here (NZ) as well: I recently had a go at in on my blog (http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2010/09/sweet-poison.shtml) but this is such a great post from Steve that I’ll do a follow-up link.

  29. montos says:

    “And don’t forget that the major components are aspartate and phenylalanine, both of which are just amino acids. Aspartate is plentiful and we make far more of it daily than one could ever consume from aspartame. Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid and your blood levels from your own diet and proteins is far in excess of what aspartame could ever provide. So my question is, what exactly are we supposed to be worried about with this stuff?”

    Right, I don’t dispute the science and the body of evidence supporting it’s safety continues to grow but I do think statements like the one above can be somewhat dangerous since it sounds suspiciously like “natural means safe”.

    Keep in mind the L-tryptophan induced EMS problems about 20 years ago. This also from a naturally occuring amino acid.

    As well, although these are naturally occuring amino acids found in our diets, never in millions of years of human evolution have we ever ingested them in their pure isolated form like we are today. Although this has not proven to be a problem it certainly could have been.

    So I guess I’m saying you’re right but the concerns were legitimate despite the apparent innocuous make-up of the sweetener. Cancer and MS have been well studied but as consumption of these products increases I still think it prudent to study these products for long-term health sequelae. The real problem comes from the scare tactics of those making unsubstantiated claims.

    I also must admit that I have a “granola” bias as well when it comes to artificial foods so that colours my opinions somewhat.

  30. Bogeymama says:

    Thanks for this! Haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but will do. Just curious – I regularly read the Nutrition Action Newsletter at work (published by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. They have a real hate-on for aspartame, but I otherwise find most of their content very well-balanced and fair. Any opinions about the CSPI out there?

  31. ImperfectlyInformed says:

    As one of the major contributors to the aspartame controversy Wikipedia article, I broadly agree with the post that aspartame is generally safe. However, I don’t think it is a good article. It relies too much on arguments from authority, and sets up a straw men of the opponents to aspartame, ignoring a long list of cancer experts including James Huff (NIH cancer expert). Nor does it mention that each comprehensive review of aspartame’s safety was paid for by the industry. This is similar to when SBM looked into BPA, and so invited only a PhD in chemistry from the American Chemistry Council (not the Society, the trade group) to give them a lecture.

    Relying entirely on arguments from authority, entirely discounting conflicts of interest, and ignoring the most legitimate voices from the opposing side is a combination for error. In this case, Steve was lucky enough to most likely be right. But in the 1960s he could have possibly made a similar argument about the safety of leaded gasoline (I’ll admit I haven’t looked into this controversy) prior to Needleman’s work.

    These types of articles are why I don’t come here that often. Highly rhetorical. The only editor here who is really scientific is David Gorski, and if I want to read him I can just go to Respectful Insolence.

  32. jdombrow says:

    Dr Novella,

    What about Hull’s claims that aspartame causes “major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances”?

  33. Dawn says:

    @ImperfectlyInformed: Can you please give specific examples of Dr Novella’s errors as you see them? You have given a lot of complaints – arguments from authority, straw men, COI… – but nothing specific.

    I re-read Dr Novella’s post after reading your comment and still can’t find the issues you are complaining about.

  34. Citing reviews of evidence is not an argument from authority – it is a summary of the evidence.

    Not all reviews are funded by industry, and many studies have been done independently and internationally.

    And what straw man did I set up? At one end there are internet rumors, which are worth pointing out and countering as that is what I am most asked about. At the other there is legitimate controversy, which I described – citing references for each point I made.

    Regarding “nutritionists” – I should have clarified that many self-styled nutritionists advise to avoid artificial sweeteners, I did not mean to imply any official stance by any nutritionist organization.

  35. Steve Novella,

    What’s a “nutritionist organization”? When I was studying towards my BSc Nutrition, I wasn’t aware of any professional organizations beyond the ones for Dieticians – who are a profession, unlike people who happen to have postgraduate degrees in Nutrition, who I suppose could be considered nutritionists similarly to those who have postgraduate degrees in Communications could presumably be called communicationists. However neither nutritionists nor communicationists are professions.

  36. Regarding the e. coli source – Actually I don’t have a problem with the fact that it is derived from the excrement of E. Coli. My problem is that it tastes like the excrement of E. Coli (well, figuratively).

    And the taste stays there in your mouth until you manage to wash it out with something more pleasant tasting, like Listerine. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, a little.)

    Regarding Aspartame as a placebo/nocebo cause of migraines @Angora Rabbit. – Maybe it’s just because I’m approaching this from a patient’s perspective, but if I am a person who experiences migraines after drinking or eating something with aspartame*, why does it matter to me if it is a reaction caused directly by the chemicals in the product or an unfortunate process of behavioral conditioning? I’m still stuck with the end result.

    *I am not, My father and sister experience(d) migraines. I am lucky in that I only get an occasional nasty headache when I am trapped around the smell of dried lavender…easy to avoid.

  37. LovleAnjel says:

    “I am surprised sugar alcohols like xylitol aren’t more reviled than aspartame since they can bring on the shootie poops.”

    This gave my nose the shootie coffees. Thanks!

  38. Angora Rabbit says:

    “Keep in mind the L-tryptophan induced EMS problems about 20 years ago. This also from a naturally occuring amino acid.”

    My understanding is that the problem wasn’t the L-Trp per se. It was a change in manufacturing that introduced a contaminant, and the contaminant was the problem. This is a good example of why changes in product *manufacturing* require FDA approval, in addition to the product itself.

    “As well, although these are naturally occuring amino acids found in our diets, never in millions of years of human evolution have we ever ingested them in their pure isolated form like we are today. Although this has not proven to be a problem it certainly could have been.”

    I’m not picking on you per se – you have some nice comments that I thought were worth responding to. :) A basic textbook on the physiology of amino acid absorption should put this sort of concern to rest. We have nice regulated systems to control AA uptake from the gut mucosa, and nice systems in the liver that control AA fate before it reaches the rest of the body. The aspartame AA levels are vastly below the typical American meal containing meat. It’s simply not an issue. If one runs the numbers, I ingest more Phe in my Friday-night T-bone than comes from from a Diet Coke serving. It ain’t a problem.

    FYI there is a professional organization of nutrition professionals (okay that’s redundant), the American Society for Nutrition (nutrition.org). We publish two professional journals, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Journal of Nutrition. That’s in addition to the ADA. And isn’t there a nutrition specialty for MDs?

    “if I am a person who experiences migraines after drinking or eating something with aspartame*, why does it matter to me if it is a reaction caused directly by the chemicals in the product or an unfortunate process of behavioral conditioning? I’m still stuck with the end result.”

    Umm… I don’t think anyone is saying the migraine isn’t real. They are horrid and all too real (dear spouse gets them from chocolate – all the more for me!). But isn’t this blog all about distinguishing placebo effects from a specific effect? If we claim the migraine is caused by X, and the data instead show that X doesn’t cause it, then where do we draw the line about factual vs. nonfactual claims?

    Cheers!

  39. Alex says:

    The argument against aspartame on the basis that it’s made from the excrement of bacteria is pretty silly when you consider how many common foods are intentionally processed to contain the excrement of bacteria… yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, sauerkraut, vinegar, sourdough bread, etc. Not to mention the ever popular excrement of yeasts.

  40. ImperfectlyInformed says:

    Perhaps I was too harsh on my comment. I will admit that the article seems better than past articles.

    If you cite a review and all you do is basically quote the abstract, you are certainly making an argument from authority. If you summarize the contents and explain the evidence, there’s less of an argument from authority. In a blog like this you lose a lot of people though. Arguments from authority are informal fallacies, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t used quite reasonably all the time. Most of us – those who are not experts on every topic – rely to a large degree on arguments of authority for our rational beliefs. It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think you summarized the existing evidence as well as I would expect. And Dawn, with COI, I was fairly specific – Steve played the conspiracy theory out as if is completely implausible, when in fact this is an area where the industry has been very aggressive in doing the science, and the relationship between Arthur Hull Hayes and its initial approval cannot be dismissed.

    I certainly think there was a straw man Whenever one begins a scientific discussion with 9 (!) paragraphs on conspiracy theories and identifies a hokey person without discussing the non-hokey people, I have to wonder about whether we’re talking science or politics. If two people criticized a scientific study, and the hokey one was rebutted while the legitimate one was ignored, would that be legitimate scientifically? Certainly not.

    Contrast these statements from Steve:

    “Animals studies are problematic and have produced mixed results, but no clear evidence of a neoplastic risk”

    “Aspartame is a highly studied food additive with decades of research showing that it is safe for human consumption”.

    Yet there’s no fleshing out of these “mixed results”. Rather unconvincing overall. And animal studies are the primary evidence for something like this because if you think it’s difficult to assess doses in animals in a controlled laboratory, try assessing doses in humans through an epidemiological study. Steve doesn’t summarize any of the issues with the Rammazzini Foundation work.

  41. windriven says:

    @trrll

    Funny! But aren’t all fowl oviparous?

  42. It is simply not an argument from authority when you are citing evidence. Relying upon and citing the peer-reviewed published work of others is not an argument from authority.

    A straw man is to make an argument that no one holds. I was addressing popular arguments that are rampant on the internet – therefore, not a straw man.

    I then went on to discuss the legitimate scientific debate. I also did specifically address the main points of the criticism of the Ramazzini paper, writing:
    “Some effects, such as a dose-dependent effect on renal tumors, are specific to rats and do not translate to humans. Other studies are plagued by significant flaws, such as properly calculating doses (a big issue when trying to extrapolate doses from rats to humans). And still others show flat effects without a dose response curve, suggesting that a confounding factor, and not aspartame, is responsible for any observed increase in tumors.”

    Further – there is a difference between legitimate COI and grand conspiracy theories. To criticize the latter does not deny the former. I write about this often, but it is time consuming to spell it out each and every time I criticize a conspiracy theory.

    Your other complaints generally amount to that my blog post was not long enough or formatted as a peer-review article. There is always more depth to be explored, but that depth was simply beyond the scope and purpose of this article, which was to provide the consumer an overview and bottom line analysis of the popular controversy over aspartame.

  43. ScienceGuru says:

    We live in a very interesting society. It baffles me that 2 or 3 letters following someones last name provides enough comfort to the general population to accept and adopt the beliefs of the “Expert(s)”. I too once wanted to become a physician however, after extensive study in the fields of biochemistry, molecular genetics, and biophysical chemistry, I realized that the knowledge of the human body and processes that occur within it are VERY poorly understood.

    The human genome contains ~3 billion base pairs and somewhere around 20,000 genes. This number is still evolving. In the mid 90′s it was thought that the genome was composed of 100,000 genes. In 2001, the Human Genome Project claimed that our genome contained 30,000-40,000 genes. Less than 10 years ago, scientists and physicians alike were stunned when C. Venter et al. suggested that there may be less than 30,000 genes. In 2004, the National Human Genome Research Institute estimated 20,000-25,000 genes. The scientific community has solved the structure of less than 10% of the human gene products. As a community, we have yet to structurally and functionally understand all of the gene products in our most studied organism, E. coli. Additionally, genetic analysis has shown that humans and chimpanzees have 98% IDENTICAL DNA. This means that ALL of the diversity in the human species is accounted for by a mere 2% of our genome.

    Though I don’t want to take anything away from Steven Novella, his profession, or his work, I will say that he is a clinician, not a scientist or researcher. He has 7 peer reviewed publications in very low impact journals and is only the first author on one of the papers, which is simply a review, rather than laboratory or clinical research. Frankly, his work does not demonstrate anything that would lead me to believe he is a qualified scientist. He got his MD in the pre-genome era, so I can’t be certain about his knowledge of molecular genetics or protein dynamics, but I can say that his work and opinions do not demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the subject. Twenty years ago, when he received his medical training, is was still believed that brain cells cannot regenerate or grow once they are destroyed.

    Those things being said, this is NOT a personal attack against him specifically, but rather an illustration of a faulty system. Here we have a medical “expert” making very profound statements about the science of how a particular chemical interacts with the human body and his statements, combined with poorly conducted research is accepted as truth and fact.

    The truth and the fact is this: We know NOTHING about the human body in the grand scheme of things. For the first time in history, the last decade has allowed us to look beyond what the human eye in conjunction with microscopes can see. Sure, we have sequenced the genome, partially understand the proteome, and that’s about the extent of it. The human genome however only represents the most basic structure in the body. We’ve just recently discovered the field of epigenetics and microRNA. Nova has an interesting short on this here:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3411/02.html

    I’ve seen several posts addressing industry responsibility and the FDA. Remember that the FDA approved Avandia in 1999 and it rapidly became a top-selling diabetes making >$3 billion/year for GSK. Nearly a decade later, it was determined that it causes 43% increase in heart attacks compared to placebos. It was revealed however, that this was known and concealed prior to GSKs application for approval to the FDA. The FDA is considered to be the premier groups of US scientists who are responsible for the safety of the American people, yet, with all of their scientific knowledge and acumen, they were unwilling to see the flaws in GSKs studies. Now, some might argue that one mistake out of thousands is not bad, so I implore you to examine the Oncology industry. The BEST chemotherapy drugs show efficacy rates of
    ~25%. This means that 3 of 4 people taking it are i) spending lots of money ii) getting poisoned, with absolutely no benefit in return, yet chemo drugs continue to be approved and widely utilized. I know that many of you have had personal experience with cancer or have someone close to you that has. I am curious to know that for those who tried chemo, how many different therapies were tried with no result. I hate to say that this is the standard rather than the exception, but still, everyday, there is doctors in hospitals, advocating the use of multiple chemo regimens that, at the end of the day, simply do not work.

    I will not only focus on the Oncology industry here. this week, there was several articles published citing Ortho docs receiving millions of dollars from companies and not disclosing it.

    http://blogs.marketwatch.com/healthmatters/2010/09/15/million-dollar-industry-payments-to-doctors-go-undisclosed/

    This whole debate about aspertame really raises much greater issues. At the end of the day, I do not know if its good for us or bad for us, but I do know that

    1) we know virtually nothing about the human body
    2)One of the byproducts of aspertame metablism is methanol which is highly toxic in humans
    3) in 1996, all sanctions were removed from aspertame by the FDA
    4) From 1995 – 1999 Michael A. Friedman with the Deputy Commissioner of the FDA
    5) In 1999, following his 5 years at the FDA, Friedman was hired as the VP of Searle
    6) Searle manufactured and distributed aspertame until 2003, at which time, it was sold to Pfizer.

    At the end of the day, most of the “older” generation of physicians represents a demographic that is uneducated in modern science and medicine. They promote therapies and products developed by industry without knowing or understanding the fundamentals. Steven Novella serves as an excellent example of this in this forum with this particular topic. Thank you Steven for making the dots so easy to connect.

  44. Truckle says:

    @ Science Guru

    Wow… let me have a shot at some of what you claim.

    “We live in a very interesting society. It baffles me that 2 or 3 letters following someones last name provides enough comfort to the general population to accept and adopt the beliefs of the “Expert(s)””

    Im sorry you have such a distrust of science and the opinion of science in general, you must believe all the information taught in the universities of today is very weak.

    “after extensive study in the fields of biochemistry, molecular genetics, and biophysical chemistry, I realized that the knowledge of the human body and processes that occur within it are VERY poorly understood.”

    Ok so you’re an expert now? Which university did you go to perform this extensive study? How do you know this information was in fact correct? And you read it and couldnt understand it so therefore NO ONE can understand it? High opinion of oneself much?

    “Additionally, genetic analysis has shown that humans and chimpanzees have 98% IDENTICAL DNA. This means that ALL of the diversity in the human species is accounted for by a mere 2% of our genome.”

    Oh my goodness, you really dont understand genetics do you? Because 98% is the same as chimps, that 98% has no effect on the diversity within humans? That 98% does vary, its is not 100% identical, you are ignorant of the science. Wait didn’t you just claim to be an expert?…

    A long ad hominem is followed by – “Those things being said, this is NOT a personal attack against him specifically, but rather an illustration of a faulty system.”

    Umm, right. you seem to think that once someone has done their doctorates or education that thats it? They can no longer learn new information or change their opinion based upon new scientific evidence? You really have no idea how the scientific community works do you, despite your “extensive study in the fields of biochemistry, molecular genetics, and biophysical chemistry”… Do you have any idea what it is to be a scientist and a skeptic? Clearly not, so let me help you, it means when evidence to the contrary of the current understanding of knowledge changes, then you re-evaluate the data a re-form your opinion based upon the evidence available.

    “The BEST chemotherapy drugs show efficacy rates of
    ~25%. This means that 3 of 4 people taking it are i) spending lots of money ii) getting poisoned, with absolutely no benefit in return, yet chemo drugs continue to be approved and widely utilized.”

    *facepalm* you clearly dont understand how chemo works then? “25% efficiency” (wherever this number comes from) does not mean 1 in 4 people are cured and 3 in 4 people it has no effect whatsoever… Efficiency is based upon survival rates also which means people taking the chemo can live for another 25% longer. And people with cancer who take chemo, most really really WANT to live for another 25% longer. Whilst in that situation you might not, fine go ahead and dont take it, but please, educate yourself first.

    “1) we know virtually nothing about the human body”

    Bollocks, we know an awful lot about the human body. “Virtually Nothing” is a massive overstatement of the position and does not hold up under any scrutiny. We know enormous amounts about the body, and are learning more each day. Is there more to learn? Hell yes! but to claim we know “virtually nothing” about the body? I call bullshit.

    “The Big Food/Pharma/FDA conspiracy stuff”
    Someone who worked for the FDA joined a chemical company? Umm, so? Someone with a chemical background joins company involved in chemicals…

    “Steven Novella serves as an excellent example of this in this forum with this particular topic. Thank you Steven for making the dots so easy to connect.”

    Coming from someone who’s post has shown a stunning failure of science, of conspiracy claims without evidence, and failure of understanding statistics this means… nothing.

    Thanks for making the dots easier to connect, in your case they form the words: “Noob”

  45. @scienceguru

    Wow a little dickensonian. Could we have some Hemingway instead?

    Something like…

    ‘Don’t listen to Steve, he’s old. Listen to me, cause I know how awesome genetics is AND I have the word “guru” in my nickname. Science is really big and hard to understand. The FDA makes mistakes. Chemotherapy sucks*. Therefore any product that has something to do with science, the FDA or chemicals should be avoided like the plague**.

    But I do love the ‘I could have been a doctor, but I’m so smart that I understand how unknowable everything really is.’ part. Don’t leave that out.

    *but possibly the 25% (a number not sourced, so who knows were it came from) it helped might consider it sucked less than death.

    **gosh, what ever happened to the plague? It’s all very unknowable and genetic, I’m sure.

  46. ScienceGuru says:

    @Truckle

    1) You apologize for my distrust of scientific information yet you do not attempt to address the article I linked. In case you didn’t catch it, the title is “Million-dollar industry payments to doctors go undisclosed.” Briefly it describes leading medical device companies paying almost a quarter of a billion dollars to doctors conducting research on their devices without disclosure.
    Research is supposed to be conducted ethically and results should be reported without bias. A conflict of interest in the form of an undisclosed payment is a BRIBE. The objectivity of the observer is non-existent. The highest paid group of 38 doctors received an average of $2.85 million each. In exchange for their compensation, they generated and published 151 articles. Overall though, $250 million dollars was paid to 1,650 doctors in exchange for synthesizing and publishing fallacies. If you think this is an isolated incident, then I am quite sorry for your closed perspective.
    2) My research has been conducted at several universities and hospitals in the US and in Europe. B)I may understand the information better than most, but at no point do I claim to be all knowing.
    3) Ok, would it be better if I stated that 2% of our genomes accounts for all of the differences between humans and chimpanzees?
    4) No, after completion of a medical degree, a maximum of 50 CME hours per year. Additionally, the majority of clinicians read less than one published peer reviewed journal article per week.
    5) I’ve humored your arguments until now, but first and foremost I used the term efficacy, not efficiency. I’ve avoided assumptions concerning your medical and scientific knowledge until now, but at this point it is unavoidable. You’ve just pointed out that a) you have no idea about pharmacodynamics or b) statistics. I spent a great deal of time working on the development of target directed therapeutics. Drugs act on specific targets. Its no secret that many people receiving chemo drugs do not have the targets for the drugs to act upon. You are right about one thing however, my point DOES NOT mean that 1 in 4 are cure and 3 or 4 see no effect. Quite the contrary. 25% display a therapeutic response, which is ultimately then analyzed through Kapln-Meier actuarial analysis. 3 in 4 definitely see an effect however, though it is not a positive or desired therapeutic response, but rather poisoning.
    6) Save your money on the phone call. Until recently, we have only been able to study the body with our eyes, microscopes, listening devices (Stethoscope, Doppler, etc.), and imaging modalities (MRI, X-Ray, CT). If you’re under the impression that those technologies have given us tremendous insight to the body, then again, I’m sorry for you and again, you have pointed out your lack of knowledge.
    7) It astonishes me that you see no issue with an individual in a regulatory position who was instrumental in overturning sanctions on a particular substance going to work as an executive for the company which owned, manufactured, and distributed that same substance immediately following the term of his role as a regulatory official. Perhaps you used the same logic in formulating your first criticism.
    8) Criticism coming from someone with no knowledge means nothing. Please provide some facts next time, because uneducated opinions are merely that.

    @michelemichigan

    Certainly a little dickensonian, I agree, BUT at the same time, I was absolutely shocked by the tone of this commentary, especially considering that some of the most relevant facts were left out. It is clear that people listen to Steve otherwise his tone and assertions would not have bothered me. There is no denying that he represents the older generation of physicians and that our knowledge has evolved tremendously over the last decade. As a scientist, 20-30 hours of my week is dedicated solely to literature and its impossible to keep up with all the current advances; clinicians, with primary responsibilities to patient care have even less time.
    Depending on the drug, the cancer, the subtype of cancer, etc., that 25% varies. Generally, the efficacy goes down. For the first time in history, in the last year or 2, we have seen consistent higher efficacy rates for only ONE type of cancer bearing a specific mutation. That is only because a molecular diagnostic has been developed to screen for it. I am referring to the HER2 mutation found in breast cancer and the drug Herceptin. The drug works GREAT for women that have breast cancer bearing that mutation, but the test just came out very recently. Historically, Herceptin has been given to ALL women with breast cancer. It was the standard of care. Unfortunately, women with node-negative HER2 positive breast cancer make up a small percentage of all women with breast cancer. Additionally, even though we have an FDA approved test, in many cases it is not used. I have no idea why.
    I have a passion for science. I don’t claim to be all knowing. I do know enough however, to state that collectively, we know very little about the human body. We’ve observed it through microscopes and other technologies, but all that really means is that we know what the really small stuff looks like. Everyday, we are sailing deeper into uncharted waters, exploring the unknown. The vastness and complexity of this frontier is tremendous, so I’m quite weary when people claim to understand how something affects our bodies in a particular ways. The entire structure of knowledge has not yet elucidated the complex mechanisms, which many people adamantly assert are not affected.
    When all is said and done, TRILLIONS of dollars are dependent on a certain mindset within institutions. There are countless examples of corruption mechanisms that have resulted because of this. A $250 million dollar example was just reported this week. There are many men who would do far worse for much less.

    In the spirit of Hemingway I’ll leave you with his thoughts….

    Personal columnists are jackals and no jackal has been known to live on grass once he had learned about meat – no matter who killed the meat for him.

  47. skeptech says:

    People like “scienceguru” are the ones that really scare me in our society today.

    Science is not perfect and neither is how all the research is conducted. We know this but rather than contribute in a meaningful way to improve the science he would rather look for conspiracy theories and insert his own ignorance on everyone else by making the statement: “we know very little about the human body”

    @scienceguru
    If you are not going to try and understand the science then step aside and let the real scientists and doctors do their jobs.

  48. “The vastness and complexity of this frontier is tremendous, so I’m quite weary when people claim to understand how something affects our bodies in a particular ways. The entire structure of knowledge has not yet elucidated the complex mechanisms, which many people adamantly assert are not affected.”

    And yet you sit there typing on a keyboard, in front of a monitor, and you, apparently, have no way of knowing how it is affecting your health in the short or long term. Is the reason for being cautious of some products over others completely random? Or should we base it on profit structure? Samsung makes less money on monitors than aspartame manufacturers, so aspartame must be more dangerous?

    Doctors and Scientist have drawn the conclusions that gas and paint should not have lead, that we should avoid food that contains high levels of mercury, yet by your estimate, we have no way of knowing, with all the complex mechanisms, whether lead or mercury is really harmful.

    I distrust your argument, because your whole point seems to be to cast a large net of doubt, rather than present evidence that shows aspartame is dangerous. Your main point seems to be “they could be wrong” And all I can see is my freshman English Comp Professor’s scrawl. “So What?”

    Just because one can present (rather tenuous) evidence that someone has the motive and opportunity to be a murderer does not mean they are a murderer. So it appears in this dot to dot, you did not connect the dots.

    Actually, in my opinion there are plenty of things that have been proven to be dangerous that are NOT appropriately addressed (say large amounts of oil leaking into our oceans and rivers.) Why not spend our time and effort correcting problems that we have good evidence would benefit our personal and environmental health?

  49. Oh dear, the length, I have become practically Tolstoyian (but not Tolstoyan.) My apologies. I can only blame it on the monumental job of cleaning the studio that I am attempting to avoid.

    Do you suppose acetone is better or worse than aspartame? I guess we just can’t know.

  50. windriven says:

    @sciencevoodoo

    “At the end of the day, most of the “older” generation of physicians represents a demographic that is uneducated in modern science and medicine. ”

    I have, in my time, been accused of towering arrogance but my friend you have outstripped even my wildest fantasies of hubris.

    I don’t know where precisely you found the information that “most” of the older generation is uneducated in modern science and medicine. Please cite the source. While you’re looking, let me point out that science and medicine did not spring fully formed from the mind of some eager young Gen-X-er while preceding generations labored in an intellectual desert of luck and superstition.

    Science and medicine have grown for centuries, each generation standing on the shoulders of the giants of the generations before it. To have some half-educated intellectual dwarf suggest that his generation is enlightened while earlier generations are drooling dolts, incapable of keeping up with advances in science and medicine is hysterical.

  51. vicki says:

    Dickensonian?

    I suspect you mean Dickensian: Emily Dickinson is known for a number of things, but long-windedness is not one of them.

    [We now return you to your regularly scheduled discussion of medical issues.]

  52. ScienceGuru says:

    You are right in some sense. I don’t know how my computer or the radiation emitting from it effect me. I also did not cite specific references in regards to the aspertame debate, however the reason this thread exists in the first place is because there are conflicting studies on this issue. In such cases, one has to wonder “cui bono” (to whose benefit?)? Experiments, data, and results can be manipulated in many different ways. I was hoping that by sharing the story of Avandias flawed FDA approval backed by GSK and the $250 million dollars in bribes issued to physicians conducting and publishing studies, you would at least be open to the idea that there exists a high possibly that aspertame could fall into the same category.

    There are countless examples of FDA approved products that have been studied ethically, found to be harmful several years after their approval, and subsequently pulled from the market. It happens. That’s one of the prices we pay. I’m really surprised that people can be aware of the controversy, be privy to the facts, and disregard them completely. At the end of the day, you’ve helped me realize that it doesn’t really matter, does it. We know the effects of smoking, yet millions of new smokers join the ranks yearly. We know some of the causes of obesity, yet there are new fast food places popping up daily. Would people stop using aspertame if they knew for a fact it was bad for them, I doubt it.

    I always thought knowledge was power, but people don’t give a shit. At the end of the day, what’s most upsetting, is that people consciously make decisions that effect their health in negative ways and then rely on the financial support of other to pay for their own mistakes. I see the fat getting fatter and complaining about it as they eat their 1,000th hamburger. Everyone gets what they deserve for their blatant ignorance. I will say sorry in advance for your future suffering and thank you at the same time for interesting health problems that I will be required to examine and study. Self indulgence clearly takes precedent over longevity in a large part of our population. Its no surprise that such a large percentage of our population is either disgustingly fat, divorced, or on mood altering drugs. I’m thoroughly disgusted by the sad state of their lives and awareness. Thank goodness for good accountants, tax shelters, and overseas bank accounts. I will not be financially responsible for something so disgusting.

  53. ScienceGuru says:

    @windriven

    Thanks for all of your insight into these complex issues. You’ve presented a very well thought out and factual argument. If the previous 10 years and the next 10 years could be modeled in a linear fashion, I would certainly agree with you. Rather than linear expansion however, we are developing at an exponential rate now. I stood on the shoulders of giants when I was 12, and now those giants look like ants. Get with the times.

  54. Chris says:

    Dr. Novella is not that old. He is younger than me, and he keeps up with the literature.

    Watch yourself, ScienceGuru. And get off my lawn!

    (I am the same age as Dr. Crislip)

  55. AudreyII says:

    Steven, thank you so much for this post, you’re giving me something to link to the next time I’m presented a link to “high quality, independent information” on D**way.

    I have had discussions about aspartame’s toxicity in the past and I am really tired of people shouting “But it’s poison, POISON, POOOOIIIISON!” at me when I “admit” I use aspartame (because I prefer its taste to that of other artificial sweeteners which of course, those people tell me, I also shouldn’t use but learn to like the “natural taste” of things). Most of the people opposed to aspartame have no idea of how much (or rather little) aspartame is in a can of carbonated soft drink (I do – my favourite kind has 83 mg plus a bit of another sweetener, acesulfame K) and how much the ADI is (I’ve never even come close to comsuming that amount of aspartame in a week, let alone a single day). But then again, they don’t really want to hear that what’s poisonous in large doses may be safely consumed in small doses. We are consuming “toxic” substances every day even if we eat “all natural” (just think of the coumarin found in cinnamon, dates, chamomile, …), but as long as we’re not eating unreasonable amounts the body is able to handle those substances.
    While I’ve been trying to discuss with anti-aspartame folks in the past, I usually ignore them now. As long as I can get aspartame and products sweetened with aspartame and they can avoid them (i.e. aspartame shows in the list of ingredients) there’s no real problem other either side of the discussion. Unless they try telling me that aspartame causes MS – a relative of mine had MS, way before aspartame was approved here (in Germany), so this is kind of a hot button for me.

  56. Vicki – I can assure you I no intention of using a real word, much less the wrong real word. Poor Emily is rolling in her thoughtful grave.

  57. Maz says:

    ScienceGuru (if that IS your real name),

    What would you have us do? Sit still, trembling in fear of the unknown, waiting for science to magically finish explaining Life, The Universe and Everything?

    As you say, there is a world of unknowns before us. Every scientist, researcher and clinician is helping to explore a tiny bit of what’s left to know. Some, of course, are more informed than others…but every one is working to try and figure it all out.

    Sure, we don’t know FOR SURE that Aspartame is safe. On the other hand, the evidence indicates that it’s reasonably safe and that any detrimental effect is likely small (and hard to detect). Disagree? Prove me wrong:

    For all your science knowledge, you don’t seem to have linked to any evidence concerning aspartame. You did link to a disturbing article that will make me question my surgeon if I ever need a medical device, but I was probably going to do that anyway.

    A key tenet of skepticism IS questioning everything, but sometimes we need to go with the best information that we’ve got until better information comes along. Of course we’ll go up a few blind alleys, but at least we’ll be going somewhere.

  58. David Gorski says:

    Dr. Novella is not that old. He is younger than me, and he keeps up with the literature.

    And Steve is a couple of years younger than me, as well. The only reason some people think he’s older than I is because his hair is completely white and I still have some hair that resists the inevitable and remains a somewhat–shall we say?–darker tone. :-)

  59. Mark Crislip says:

    For the record, I am 371 in dog years. I expect to be put down soon.

  60. Chris
    “Dr. Novella is not that old. He is younger than me, and he keeps up with the literature.”

    Damn, I would apologize for suggesting scienceguru call him old, But now that I know he’s my age, and have discovered that I’m considered “not that old” I’m too depressed. Almost as bad as being called ma’am.

    Although, I’m liking windriven’s the gen-X-er comment, eager and young. That’s right.

  61. Chris says:

    Dr. Crislip, we are the same age. If you ever decide to make up I-5 to the Emerald City (formally known as The Queen City) send me an email. You would be a great guest for us. I promise to buy you a beer, or two.

    And together we can tell those young-ens to get off our lawns! (only, I really don’t have much of a lawn, I have scatter rugs bigger than my lawn, I actually do live in the city and have an edible garden).

    Michele, you will need to get off my teeny tiny lawn if you did not watch the following live: John F. Kennedy’s funeral (I remember I was missing Saturday cartoons), the first moon landing, and Nixon’s resignation speech.

    My objection to ScienceGuru is the assumption that anyone of a certain age cannot keep up with the science. I am over fifty, and I think I do quite well. Thank you very much! One advantage that we have is that we remember the steps and process of the advancements. We remember when diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox were common. We have had friends die of AIDS, and now know those who have lived with the disease for years. I even remember when saccharin was the diet sweetener of the day!

    (by the way, unlike my siblings I have red-toned hair … both of my siblings’ brown hair turned white by their mid-thirties, I am still blond with red highlights! without resorting to the special dyes my younger sister uses, :) )

  62. Chris says:

    For the record, I am 371 in dog years. I expect to be put down soon.

    I will also be that age a week after the anniversary of the Sputnik launch.

  63. Chris, you know our rabbit-ears with tinfoil antenna/TV arrangement didn’t allow me to see much of the first moon landing, mostly snow. I heard Nixon’s resignation speech on the radio. But, I was not born when Pres. Kennedy was killed. So I don’t know how I rate, lawnwise.

    Regarding scienceguru’s ageist argument – poppycock!

    If a doctor has good training, a curious logical mind and sufficient empathy I couldn’t give a…dime about their age.

    I will say one very human weakness I have seen in some (not the majority) of medical professionals is the tendency to substitute certainty for a more fuzzy conclusion based on evidence. By this I mean a tendency to say “this is true” rather than “there is a great deal (or some, or a little) evidence that suggests this is more likely or less likely to be true”, sort of thing.

    While I wouldn’t bash a medical professional for communicating this way occasionally, I would seek care elsewhere if I thought it was habitual.

    Perhaps this is what scienceguru is trying to address. But I believe that discounting a whole profession or age group based on the poor habit of a few individuals is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    I also don’t see that Stephen Novella is exhibiting that weakness in this article. Also, from my experience, I haven’t noticed this tendency to be more or less prominent in older doctors.
    ——
    Also I’m confused by the dog years. Are those great dane or italian greyhound years?

  64. windriven says:

    @ScienceLulu

    “I stood on the shoulders of giants when I was 12, and now those giants look like ants.”

    Perhaps you need glasses.

  65. Chris says:

    micheleinmichigan:

    So I don’t know how I rate, lawnwise.

    Your good. Can you come and help pick up fallen apples? We are having a bit of windstorm.

    I just took dog years as 7. The sad thing about Great Danes is that they have such short lives, and they are such nice dogs (though one friend had on who wanted to be a lap dog).

  66. Shannon says:

    I don’t like sweetened beverages either. I like flavored waters with no sugar such as Hint water, or Ayala’s herbal infused water, if you want something that is zero calorie, zero sweetener of any type. When very cold I find both brands completely delicious.

  67. Barry2 says:

    I very much appreciate this article, since I’ve been dealing with this very question today. This is by far the best article I’ve seen on Aspartame. I need to eat a very-high-fiber cereal without psyllium, and the highest one by far that I’ve found is the “original” variety of Fiber One, which contains Aspartame. (Tastes like crap at first, but it’s fine with blueberries or raisins added.) When you need a specialty food, your options can be extremely limited, and you’re stuck with whatever additives the manufacturer puts in it. So, it’s reassuring to see the safety concerns about Aspartame addressed so carefully.

    Bogeymama, I don’t know much about the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but I recently saw their write-up on Aspartame, http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm#aspartame, and it gave me a bad opinion of them. It says that Aspartame “might cause … neurological problems such as dizziness or hallucinations,” but it doesn’t give any supporting evidence. Even worse, it admits that there are problems with all the cancer reports it cites, but concludes, “The bottom line is that lifelong consumption of aspartame probably increases the risk of cancer.” They sound more like the Center for Pseudoscience.

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