Aspartame Basics

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in most diet, sugar-free and diabetic products that would normally contain sugar.  Beverages, baked goods, ice cream, gelatins, candy, syrups, jams and jellies are some of the foods that commonly contain aspartame.  While the sweetener was long touted as a wonderful substitute, allowing diabetics to enjoy sugar-free sweets.  The side effects are now known, though, and they can be quite debilitating. 


In 1965, a chemist was working on an anti-ulcer drug.  He licked his finger after accidentally contaminating it with the drug and found it to be very sweet.  This was the birth of aspartame.  Preliminary tests caused brain tumors in rats so it was not approved by the FDA for many years.  By 1983, it was approved for many foods and by 1996, all restrictions had been lifted in the US.


The only warning aspartame carries is for those born with phenylketonuria (also known as PKU.)  One ingredient of aspartame, phenylalanine, is dangerous for those with PKU and can cause mental retardation.  More recently, though, other health risks have been associated with aspartame consumption, though the FDA has not yet taken any action toward restricting it.


Aspartame is commonly marketed under the name NutraSweet, Equal and Canderel.  Saccharin and sucralose, the main ingredient in other artificial sweeteners, do not pose the exact same risks as aspartame, though they do each come with their own set of potential side effects.


Side Effects

In 1995 it was reported, by the FDA, that aspartame accounted for three quarters of all adverse reactions to food substances reports from 1981 to 1995.  Among the nearly 100 reported symptoms reported, the mild ones include:

  • Feeling flush in the face

  • Itching

  • Other allergy-like side effects

  • Burning eyes and throat

  • Excessive thirst or hunger

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Numbness or tingling of extremities

  • Bloating

  • Weight gain


More serious symptoms include:

  • Asthmatic reactions

  • Impotency and sexual problems

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Menstrual problems or changes

  • Higher susceptibility to infections

  • Muscle spasms

  • Phobias

  • Noticeable personality changes

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Depression

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia

  • Migraines

  • Hair thinning or loss

  • Hearing and vision loss

  • Hypertension

  • Chest pains and heart palpitations

  • Seizures, convulsions and tremors

  • Death


Aspartame has also been linked to lymphoma and brain cancer in a few cases.



The aspartame research is as controversial as the reported side effects are.  Scientists conducting human studies often choose capsules, which are slow releasing, rather than a common form of ingestion, like sugar-free beverages.  Because the absorption is much slower with the capsules, the results of the tests aren’t necessarily reliable. 


What Makes Aspartame Dangerous

When you consume aspartame, about 10% of it is broken down into methanol in the small intestine. Methanol is transformed into formaldehyde, a potentially lethal substance that is known to cause rapid, shallow breathing, hypothermia, and can cause comas.  


A 1998 study in Spain found that formaldehyde produced by methanol breakdown from aspartame consumption collected in the brain, liver and kidneys in lab animals.  Some scientists, however, claim there is not enough methanol produced to cause toxicity. 


Many users of aspartame treat it like a blank check to eat all the sweets and sugary foods they desire.  Because most foods that contain aspartame are either free of nutrients and/or filled with empty calories, like processed flour, it likely contributes to being overweight or obese.  While refined sugar consumption also contributes to obesity, when used in moderation it usually carries few other long term effects.