Gabe Mirkin, M.D.

Aspartame and saccharin continue to be blamed for a wide variety of ills, even though research has shown them to be safe if eaten in reasonable amounts. NOTE: I DO NOT AGREE WITH THIS STATEMENT. I AM TRYING TO BE AS OBJECTIVE AS POSSIBLE. (W Greene, D.C.)

Aspartame, marketed as Nutrasweet, is the target of an intense negative internet campaign. A writer using the pseudonym of Nancy Markle has published articles that are emotional, unsupported by data, and unbelievable. She claims that many diseases, including lupus and multiple sclerosis are caused by aspartame, but researchers on these diseases discount any connection.

John Olney, a respected scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, feels that aspartame causes brain tumors. However, there is no solid data to support it (2). He claims that the incidence of brain tumors has increased from 1975 to 1992 (4), when aspartame was first introduced, but most reports have found no increase in brain tumors. For example, a report in the Journal of the National Cancer institute found no increase in brain tumors.

There is no solid evidence that aspartame is harmful to humans. Aspartame breaks down into two chemicals, formaldehyde and phenyalanine. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing agent. One study from Spain shows that breakdown products of formaldehyde accumulate in the body (3), but most studies find formaldehyde in the test tube and are unable to find it in living tissue. Most studies show no effect on IQ or personality (1).

The controversy over the safety of saccharin started in 1977, when Canadian studies showed that giving pregnant guinea pigs the amount of saccharin found in 1200 to 1800 soft drinks a day did not cause bladder cancer. Then their offsprings were given the same dose of saccharin and 50 percent of the males developed bladder cancer. The female offspring did not suffer bladder cancer, but that doesn’t prove that saccharin causes cancer. When you take in the amount of saccharin found in 1800 soft drinks a day, you urinate pure saccharin sand. All urine contains ammonia which drives the saccharin sand into cells to damage them and increase risk or bladder cancer. These same changes can also be caused by instilling large amounts of sugar or salt into the bladder. Saccharin is 200 times sweeter than sugar and it sweetens food at such low doses that you consume only minute amounts.

Some of the negative reports on artificial sweeteners claim that there is a conspiracy among manufacturers and the government to prevent the approval of Stevia, an intense sweetener derived from a South American plant. Concerns about the safety of stevia have not been resolved (5), but, as with the artificial sweeteners, it takes such a small amount to impart sweetness that you can probably use it without fear. Although it cannot be marketed as a sweetener, it is readily available from herb growers and as a dietary supplement.

There is no convincing evidence that small amounts of any of the available artificial or non-caloric plant sweeteners will harm you. Consuming huge amounts of sweeteners or any other food may be harmful. A cup or two of an artificially-sweetened beverage is reasonable, but don’t drink them by the gallon. Use water to quench your thirst.

1) Am J of Clin Nutr 1998(Sept);68(3):531-7.

2) J Natl Cancer Inst 1997(Jul) 16;89(14):1072-4.

3) Life Sciences 1998;63(5):337-349.

4) J Neuropathol Exp Neurol 1996(Nov);55(11):1115-23.

5. Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Stevia: not ready for prime time”, Nutrition Action Newsletter, April 2000. “Although there is no evidence of harm to people, laboratory studies of stevia have found potential cancer and reproductive-health problems. Stevia depressed sperm production in male rats and reduced the number and size of the offspring of female hamsters. Until those concerns are disproven, stevia should not be used by manufacturers in soft drinks, candy, or other foods,”” said David Schardt, associate nutritionist for CSPI.. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the past 10 years has rejected three food-additive petitions for stevia because its safety had not been adequately demonstrated. Canada also has not approved its use, and last year a scientific review panel for the European Community declared that stevia is unacceptable for use in food.