What About Artificial Sweeteners
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What About Artificial Sweeteners
By Albert Grazia, PhD

It's a dieter's and diabetic's dream come true: artificially sweetened products one can consume all day without worrying about the sugar or calories. As a clinical nutritionist I was skeptical and decided to examine this phenomenon more closely.
First of all, when you ask most consumers of diet soda to tell you what type of sweetener is added, they will give one of the commercial names of the sweetener aspartame. But if you probe further and ask what is in aspartame, they will likely shrug their shoulders. Most people are not aware of aspartame's composition because there is no requirement to list its individual ingredients on food labels.
Aspartame was originally discovered by accident in 1965 by a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company. He was actually testing an ulcer drug when he spilled some chemicals on his hand. Later when he licked his finger to turn a page, he was amazed to discovered an intensely sweet taste. Today, aspartame is widely available and can be found in almost 9,000 food products.
Although Aspartame is calorie-free, consuming it may not come without a price. Because is is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, the brain is fooled into believing an abnormally high amount of glucose has entered the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas is stimulated to secrete insulin to lower serum glucose levels. This may in fact cause blood sugar levels to fall below normal leading to a serious condition known as hypoglycemia. The brain's preferred source of energy is derived from glucose and when blood sugar levels fall too low, the brain panics and sends out food craving messages. This may cause the individual to actually eat more food (usually the wrong foods such as high sugar/high fat). This may sabotage any weight loss intentions.
Aspartame's three ingredients can be found in any nutrition or biochemistry textbook. It is 40% aspartic acid, (an amino acid) and 50% phenylalanine, (another amino acid). Both of these amino acids are bound to a molecule of methanol (wood alcohol), which comprises the remaining 10% of this all-natural, artificial sweetener. Since it contains two amino acids, it is not considered a carbohydrate.
Lets explore the ingredients separately, starting with aspartic acid. This amino acid in free form (unbound) can pass the blood brain barrier and accumulate in the brain. Once there, it has the potential to act as an excitotoxin and it can excite or over stimulate neurons.
Excess levels of phenylalanine in the blood can interfere with the absorption into the brain of another amino acid, tryptophan. This in turn can result in lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin since tryptophan is necessary its production. Decreased serotonin in the brain may be associated with depression. In addition, since serotonin is a precursor to the hormone melatonin, sleep disorders may also result.
One serious caution for the use of aspartame may involve individuals with the genetic disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU). In this instance, the enzyme required to metabolize phenylalanine is defective and compounds known as phenylketones are produced. This substance accumulates in the blood and may cause brain damage in these individuals.
Once aspartame enters the small intestine, methanol is released and absorbed into the body. Methanol is then metabolized to formaldehyde (embalming fluid) and to formic acid (normally found in the sting of red ants). Due to its low excretion rate, the EPA considers methanol a cumulative poison. It is recommended that its consumption of methanol be limited to 7.8 mg per day. One serving (8 ounces) of a diet beverage contains 14 mg. Symptoms of methanol toxicity include vision problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disorders, weakness, behavioral changes and memory loss.
Aspartame has been widely tested on rodents, with no reported deaths attributed to aspartame consumption. However, one possible confounding variable in these safety studies is the fact that rodents possess different enzyme systems than humans and are better able to metabolize aspartame. Therefore, it can be concluded that it is perfectly safe to give aspartame to your pet rat.

This article is for informational purposes. If you have any serious health issues, always consult with your physician.