Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Sour Side of Sugar Substitutes

I try to stay well away from aspartame, but it seems to be everywhere. In 1965, chemist James Schlatter discovered aspartame accidentally while working for pharmaceutical giant Searle & Co. (later sold to Monsanto in 1985). I first learned about Monsanto when the company’s GMO Round-Up Ready Canola was blown- by the wind- to Percy Schmeiser’s farmland, where the seeds grew and contaminated his crop. Monsanto sued Percy. Nothing good can come out of capitalist companies more interested in profiting than protecting.

But back to aspartame.

Aspartame’s full name is L-alpha-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester. It is composed of two amino acids - aspartic acid (40%) and phenylalanine (50%) – and a methyl ester (10%) which - when swallowed - becomes free methyl alcohol. Also known as Methanol, free methyl alcohol is toxic. Ten milliliters will cause blindness, and ninety more milliliters will cause death. Of course, there is only a very small amount in Aspartame, so what harm could it do, right? Health Canada isn’t; so, should we be?

In 1965 James Schlatter was in his lab, trying to make a drug to combat ulcers. He spilled the solution, and later, he unprofessionally licked his fingers and tasted something very sweet; In fact, 200 times sweeter than sugar. Schlatter and his colleagues reported “another accidental discovery” to The Journal of the American Chemical Society (Mazur, 1969), stating it was an “organic compound with a profound sucrose (table sugar) like taste”.

The years following Schlatter’s discovery, scientists across the United States conducted studies on mice and primates. They found that aspartame induced seizures in primates (Weisman, 1967) and holes in the brains of mice (Olney, 1970). Meanwhile, Searle & Co. lobbied to make the sweetener legal, claming that their own studies had found no adverse effects.

Prior to aspartame, saccharin was the sugar substitute of choice. It had a strange aftertaste and some scientists deemed it dangerous to human health. But the maker of saccharin, Sherwin-Williams and their supporters denied any health claims that would jeopardize sales. It remained - and still is - legal in the United States. It was science versus corporation and too often the former is snuffed out.

Saccharin shares its science versus corporation battle with its predecessors: cyclamate and aspartame. Saccharin was discovered in 1879 when scientist, Constantin Fahlberg, was experimenting with coal-tar derivatives and also found it to taste sweet. Saccharin took the place of cyclamate (discovered in 1937, also by a scientist who also accidentally tasted his solution). Thankfully, cyclamate was made illegal- and still is- in both Canada and the United states after studies found it was a carcinogen.

Miraculously, in 1977, Canada banned the use of saccharin in foods and beverages after a study found that repeated consumption caused cancer of the bladder in rats ( Unfortunately, this meant from 1977 until 1981 Canadian sugar-junkies weren’t getting their sweet fix.

And then in 1981 aspartame was allowed to sneak in. Health Canada claims it is safe to consume 40 milligrams/kilogram of body weight/day and declares all other scientific studies that found it dangerous are “not supported” ( Monsanto agrees with Health Canada. (Or does Health Canada agree with Monsanto?)

By 1982, diet soft-drink sales in Canada tripled to represent 15 percent of all soft-drink sales (

When aspartame was introduced, the director of Sherwin-Williams, Sally Domm, saw it as a business opportunity, stating, “If you have products with a mixture of aspartame and saccharin, there's a good chance it would increase the market for us.''

A United States-based group, which represents Diet Coke, Splenda, Sweet 'N Low and some Hershey's chocolate, has been harassing Health Canada for more than 10 years to grant approval of the artificial sweetener for use in food. In 2007, Health Canada admitted to considering the re-introduction of saccharin based on findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which deemed saccharin safe. It is still illegal, but the battle is not over.

By the 1980s aspartame was legal and booming. Soon it was added to carbonated drinks and being introduced to products such as Lipton powered tea mix, General Foods' Kool-Aid and Country Time lemonade, and a Quaker Oats cereal, Halfsies.

Today, aspartame is found in more than 6000 products worldwide, including soft drinks, juice crystals, chewing gum, candy, gelatins, dessert mixes, puddings and fillings, frozen desserts, yogurt, tabletop sweeteners, and some pharmaceuticals such even in some vitamins and sugar-free cough drops.

Aspartame is still a source of controversy within the scientific community and chemical industry. Recent studies are no more conclusive than those thirty years ago; some strongly warn against the consumption of aspartame, while others indicate that findings are inconclusive and others claim it is completely safe.

In 1996, Olney et al conducted a study that found a correlation between the sharp increase of brain tumor incidence and malignancy with the introduction of aspartame. They concluded that aspartame’s carcinogenic potential needed to be reassessed. (

Cyclamate was 30-50 times sweeter than sugar; Saccharin is 300 times sweeter; Aspartame is 200 times sweeter- but without the chemical aftertaste of saccharin. Guess what? Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar!

Without a doubt, sucralose will sneak by, poisoning Canadians, just like cyclamate did and saccharin and aspartame do. Please don’t be sucked in to claims of sugar substitutes and reduced calories. If the product had processed or refined sugar to begin with, it was never healthy; adding more chemicals it doesn’t become any more so.

Whether cancerous or not, sweeteners are moneymakers for companies that place health second to profit. They bombard us with ads glorifying their reduced sugar content in over-processed food which is so far from it’s original form it can hardly be called food at all.

If you want to eat something sweet, eat an (organic, local) apple!

Books to read:
Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (1994)
Dr. Blaylock is a certified neurosurgeon with 25 years of experience. He is also a lecturer and author. In his book, he discusses the toxic effects of a number of food additives, including MSG (monosodium glutamate), aspartame and L-cysteine.

The secret history of the war on cancer by Devra Davis


  1. You can also use stevia! I use SweetLeaf Sweetener Stevia. It has 0 calories, 0 carbs, and a 0 glycemic index--I understand the only stevia brand or sweetener with all three properties! It was the first stevia company and the most natural since it is the only one that uses only pure water during extraction.

    Anyway, it's naturally good!--with no aftertaste!

  2. you must be careful with any substance that has received limited testing. Natural doesn't always mean it's safe.

  3. Actually stevia has been well-studied, contrary to what some may believe. It's safety is well-documented. During the last century well over 1000 scientific articles and patents on stevia were published. The first known written account of stevia was by a physician, named Francisco Hernandez who wrote "Natural History of Plants of the New Spain" between 1570 and 1576 and was repeatedly published in Spanish and Latin between 1605 and 1959. It's worth noting that stevia has been used in South America for 1500 years and in the Orient for about 30 years and "no adverse reactions due to the ingestion of S. rebaudiana (stevia) extracts of stevioside by humans has appeared in the biomedical literature" (Stevia: The Diabetic's Dream, The Fat Cell's Nightmare). In other words, even though millions of people have ingested it around the world in many products and forms for decades or centuries, there has never been a report of adverse effects ever recorded! That's a really good safety record! It has been said that there are more studies that support stevia's saftey than any other substance humans consume! Also, there are even numerous health benefits to stevia! For instance, it's even used in South America to treat diabetes because it lowers blood sugar levels and may put them into proper balance. It also nourishes the pancreas.

    Not all stevia brands are equal in quality. Again, SweetLeaf is the best! And I am very confident in its safety. Thanks anyway.


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