Monday morning, strength room, 8:15am. I’ve already been awake for four hours. Perched atop the dumbbell rack beside me is my only defense against the inevitable drowsiness due to set in any moment. I reach over and snatch the zero calorie Monster drink from its pedestal and pop the top… Not even two sips in and my blissful consumption is interrupted, “Jared!” shouts a client; “I can’t believe you’re a trainer and you drink those!” I brace myself for the onslaught… “Don’t you watch the news?” “The fake sugar in those things is horrible for you, it causes cancer!”…Well, now I’m awake!
Unfortunately this is not an uncommon belief among the general public with regards to artificial sweeteners. Some of this can be blamed on media outlets that love to leave for a commercial break by saying; “next on channel 5 news, popular artificial sweetener may lead to bladder cancer.” When you tune into the actual story, you learn that it was in rats and they probably left out dosage information which normally equates to humans consuming hundreds of diet sodas per day. Others just turn the channel before hearing any of the story and just think artificial sweeteners cause cancer. In addition to the media, some “doctors” trying to make a name for themselves make outlandish claims to sell books or get website traffic. Browse the internet and you will find claims that various artificial sweeteners can turn organs into plastic, destroy your heart, mutate babies, spark cancerous cell growth, and cause a variety of other problems… Sounds more like a biological weapon than a sugar substitute.
Aspartame is possibly the most scrutinized artificial sweetener. It has been blamed to cause many health issues including but not limited to; heart disease, cancer, depression, seizures, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and even breast enlargement in men. The basis for these claims is that aspartame breaks down into 3 toxic chemicals upon ingestion (aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol). Two of these bi products (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) are common amino acids that we consume every day with every gram of protein we ingest. The other bi product, methanol, is consumed in much higher quantities via fruit juice and wine (3-6x more). While aspartame does break down into these 3 chemicals, what opponents fail to mention is that most things in life are toxic to the body in high doses (including vitamins A D E and K). The levels of aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol resulting from ingestion of aspartame have been shown via multiple studies to have no harmful effect on the human body. In fact, in order to meet the acceptable daily intake limit for aspartame a human would have to consume 2 gallons of diet soda per day for their lifetime (this isn’t even the toxic level!).
It’s ironic that aspartame is the most scrutinized artificial sweetener since it is also the most researched (and found to be safe in the research). A large double blind study at Duke University gave people who claimed to be sensitive to aspartame single large doses of the sweetener and measured differences in headache frequency, blood pressure, and allergy markers, between experimental and control groups. No significant differences were found between the experimental and control groups. In another study carried out at MIT participants were given aspartame in doses equivalent to 12 diet drinks per day. No differences were found in brainwaves, mood, memory, behavior, or various physiological measures. In addition to these findings reports of headaches, fatigue, and nausea, occurred equally between the two groups.
Real Sugar Instead?
According to the research, 2 gallons per day would result in no harmful health outcomes from aspartame consumption, however if you were to consume regular soda (real sugar) you would consume approximately 3000 calories per day (almost 1 lb of fat per day!). I think everyone knows the detrimental effects this would have on health. Let’s look at this on a more realistic level. If 2 gallons per day of diet soda can be safely consumed that means 20 oz per day (1/6th of a gallon) would be even safer, compare that to consuming 20oz of regular soda which would result in a weight gain of approximately 25 pounds per year . The resulting health effects of being overweight can’t be argued. I would much rather take my chances (albeit there is minimal if any risk) with diet soda over regular soda. Unfortunately since the spike in artificial sweetener sales we have also seen a continuing spike in obesity. Remember removing calories via artificial sweeteners does not mean you can add additional food!
In a perfect world artificial sweeteners would not be needed because we would be able to control our intake of sugars and calories. However this is not practical or realistic for our society. Current research shows absolutely no ill effects of the artificial sweeteners currently on the market. While the sugar industry spends a lot of money with scare tactics; as of now it looks like real sugar may be more of an issue than artificial sweeteners, not because of the substance itself, rather what happens when it’s abused by individuals. Remember, there are NO safe or unsafe substances, only safe and unsafe doses.