The Dangers of the Artificial Sweetener Aspartame

Diet soda is falling out of favor due to the growing unpopularity of artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose (Splenda). PepsiCo even replaced the aspartame in Diet Pepsi with Splenda in 2015 in an effort to win back customers who’ve become wary of aspartame’s health effects — but it clearly didn’t work.

Aspartame Effects

Story at-a-glance

  • PepsiCo replaced the aspartame in Diet Pepsi with Splenda in 2015 in an effort to win back customers wary of aspartame’s health effects
  • In the first quarter of 2016, Diet Pepsi sales declined by 10.6 percent
  • To save their slumping sales, and please customers who apparently disliked the taste of the aspartame-free Diet Pepsi, the company is reintroducing aspartame-sweetened Diet Pepsi to the market

At the time, PepsiCo said the No. 1 request by its customers was to remove aspartame from Diet Pepsi.1 Senior vice president of Pepsi’s flavors unit, Seth Kaufman, noted, “Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi.”2

However, annual per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks in 2015 was 650 eight-ounce servings, the lowest rate since 1985, according to a report from industry-tracking group Beverage Digest.3

PepsiCo had the steepest decline — a 3.1 percent volume loss — and their Diet Pepsi product was particularly hit hard with a nearly 6 percent drop. In the first quarter of 2016, Diet Pepsi sales fell even more, declining 10.6 percent, according to Beverage Digest.4

To save their slumping sales, and please customers who apparently disliked the taste of the aspartame-free Diet Pepsi, the company is reintroducing “Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend” — i.e., Diet Pepsi sweetened with aspartame — to the market.

2 of 3 Diet Pepsi Varieties to Contain Aspartame

Classic Diet Pepsi is slated to come back to the market in September 2016, featuring a light blue can. In a silver can will be regular Diet Pepsi, sweetened with Splenda.

There’s also Pepsi MAX, which comes in a black can and is going to be reintroduced in the U.S. as Pepsi Zero Sugar. This, too, will contain aspartame.5 Crystal Pepsi, which first made its debut in the ‘90s, will also be making a comeback in 2016, at least temporarily.

The clear soda does not contain caffeine or phosphoric acid and is perceived to be healthier than typical dark-colored sodas. Its limited reintroduction, timed not coincidently amidst dropping sales, is likely an attempt to test the market to see if more health-conscious consumers will take the crystal-clear bait.6

Unfortunately, all of this relabeling and reintroducing is missing the point, which is not only that soda is detrimental to your health — no matter what shade, flavor or color — but also that diet soda by any name is likely even worse.

Aspartame May Lead to Glucose Intolerance and Diabetes

Many people who are overweight or obese also struggle with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, and consequently choose artificial sweeteners over sugar, believing the former to be a healthier choice.

Yet, studies have found that artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, may lead to weight gain7 and glucose intolerance by altering gut microbiota.8

Unbeknownst to many, aspartame has been found to increase hunger ratings compared to glucose or water and is associated with heightened motivation to eat (even more so than other artificial sweeteners like saccharin or acesulfame potassium).9

For a substance often used in “diet” products, the fact that aspartame may actually increase weight gain is incredibly misleading.

A recent study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism also found that consuming aspartame may be associated with greater glucose intolerance, particularly for people who are obese. According to the study:10

“This study provides evidence that consumption of aspartame may be associated with greater diabetes risk in individuals with higher adiposity. Aspartame is reported to be associated with changes in gut microbiota that are associated with impairments in insulin resistance in lean and obese rodents.

We observe that aspartame was related to significantly greater impairments in glucose tolerance for individuals with obesity … ”

It’s Not Only Aspartame That’s the Problem

This is far from the first time artificial sweeteners have been linked to metabolic problems. According to separate research published in PLOS ONE:11

“Regular consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks is associated with disorders of the metabolic syndrome, including abdominal obesity, insulin resistance and/or impaired glucose tolerance, dyslipidemia and high blood pressure.

In particular, daily diet soda consumption (primarily sweetened with N-a-L-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester, aspartame … ), is reported to increase the relative risk of type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome by 67 percent and 36 percent respectively.”

Yet, it’s not only aspartame that’s linked to health problems, so if you’re thinking that sticking with PepsiCo’s Splenda-sweetened diet soda is smarter, you’re being misled. Like aspartame, Splenda affects your body’s insulin response.

When study participants drank a Splenda-sweetened beverage, their insulin levels rose about 20 percent higher than when they consumed only water prior to taking a glucose-challenge test.12

Blood sugar levels also peaked at a higher level, So the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response,” researchers noted, adding:13

“Although we found that sucralose affects the glucose and insulin response to glucose ingestion, we don’t know the mechanism responsible. We have shown that sucralose is having an effect.

In obese people without diabetes, we have shown sucralose is more than just something sweet that you put into your mouth with no other consequences. What these all mean for daily life scenarios is still unknown, but our findings are stressing the need for more studies.”

Don’t Be Misled: Diet Soda Is Not a Healthy Choice

PepsiCo is desperately trying to grab a corner of the market it currently misses — health-conscious consumers. Reformulating its diet soda is just one of its plans toward this end.

Ironically, the company, which spent more than Monsanto to defeat legislation calling for mandatory state and federal labeling of products containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, even has plans to release a GMO-free line of its Tropicana juices.14

But make no mistake. In the case of Diet Pepsi, they can call it whatever they want and put it in any color can they can possibly imagine, but it won’t change the fact that it’s among the worst beverages you can consume for your health.

Aspartame May Cause Brain Damage and Other Health Effects

Ninety-two percent of independently funded studies found aspartame may cause adverse effects, including depression and headaches.15 A study also found the administration of aspartame to rats resulted in detectable methanol even after 24 hours, which might be responsible for inducing oxidative stress in the brain.15

Aspartame is made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. But the phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness.

That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol.

When aspartame is in liquid form, it breaks down into methyl alcohol, or methanol, which is then converted into formaldehyde and represents the root of the problem with aspartame.

In short, both animals and humans have small structures called peroxisomes in each cell. There are a couple of hundred in every cell of your body, which are designed to detoxify a variety of chemicals.

Humans have the same number of peroxisomes in comparable cells as non-human animals, but human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and may cause birth defects.

Diet Soda May Make You Want to Eat More Junk Food

Diet soda is a scam of the worst kind, because those who drink it typically believe they’re doing their body a favor by cutting out some calories.

But research shows diet soda drinkers may later “compensate” for the calories they didn’t consume in their soda by eating more high-sugar, high-sodium and high-in-unhealthy-fats foods later in the day.17 They may also feel compelled to eat more junk food because the diet beverage didn’t satisfy their craving or desire for calories.

Obese adults were affected the most and had the highest incremental daily calorie intake from unhealthy foods associated with diet beverages, which again shows that the people most likely to consume artificial sweeteners are also among those most likely to be harmed by them.

Are You Ready to Ditch Aspartame and Other Artificial Sweeteners?

First, I highly recommend trying an energy psychology technique called Turbo Tapping, which has helped many “soda addicts” kick their habit, and it should work for any type of craving (including diet soda cravings) you may have. If you still have cravings after trying Turbo Tapping, you may need to make some changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step manner.

Your best, most cost-effective, choice of beverage is filtered tap water. I strongly recommend using a high-quality water filtration system unless you can verify the purity of your water. Seltzer or mineral water is another option, especially if you’re missing the fizz of soda.

Adding a squeeze of lemon or lime is one way to add some flavor and variety, and many soda drinkers find it easier to ditch soda when replacing it with some sparkling water. Unsweetened tea and coffee can also be healthy and can add some variety to your beverage choices without ruining your health.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for People With Diabetes?

As diabetes educators, we are frequently asked if sugar substitutesare safe and which ones are best. Over time there have been many sugar substitutes, and we always tell people that the one you use is a personal choice. They are safe for people with diabetes, and they can be used to reduce both your calorie and carbohydrate intake. Sugar substitutes also can help curb those cravings you have for something sweet.

You’ll find artificial sweeteners in diet drinks, baked goods, frozen desserts, candy, light yogurt and chewing gum. You can also find them as stand-alone sweeteners to add to coffee, tea, cereal and fruit. Some are also available for cooking and baking.

It’s important to remember that only a small amount is needed since the sweetening power of these substitutes is (at least) 100 times stronger than regular sugar.

There are currently six artificial sweeteners that have been tested and approved by the FDA—or placed on the agency’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list. Numerous scientific studies have been performed on each of them to confirm they are safe for consumption.

The FDA has established an “acceptable daily intake” (ADI) for each of the products. This represents the amount of a food ingredient that can be used safely on a daily basis over a lifetime without risk. Here is a current list of sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA.

1. Acesulfame-potassium, also known as Ace-K

This is generally blended with another low-calorie sweetener.

Brand names include Sunett® and Sweet One®

It is stable under heat, even under moderately acidic or basic conditions, allowing it to be used as a food additive in baking, or in products that require a long shelf life. In carbonated drinks, it is almost always used in conjunction with another sweetener.

2. Aspartame, called by many “the blue packet”

Over 200 studies support its safety. Aspartame is a source of phenylalanine which is an ingredient people with phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid.  A warning label is on the product. Aspartame is not heat stable so it is not the best choice for baking and cooking.

Brand names include Nutrasweet® and Equal®

3. Neotame

This has 7,000 to 8,000 the sweetening power of sugar. It does contain phenylalanine, but because the amount of neotame needed is so small, the levels of phenylalanine are insignificant. The labels are not required to have a warning. There are no other brand names. This product is mainly used by large food manufacturers and it is moderately heat stable in cooking.

4. Saccharin, called “the pink packet”

Also in a liquid form, it has been used for more than 100 years. The studies in the 1970s that linked saccharin to bladder cancer were dismissed by the FDA as they were not relevant to humans. Saccharin is heat stable and a good choice for use in cooking, baking and canning/preserving.

Brand names include Sweet ‘N Low®, Sweet Twin® and Sugar Twin®

5. Stevia, known as “the green packet”

Also called Stevioside, Rebaudioside A, B, C,D,F,  Dulcoside A, Rubusoside and Steviolbioside

Also comes in liquid and dissolvable tablets. Some Stevia products have not received GRAS status and must be sold as dietary supplements, not as a non-nutritive sweetener. Use to sweeten beverages. May be used in baking but adjustments have to be made for the lack of moisture and bulk. Follow recommendations on product labels.

Brand names include A Sweet Leaf®, Sun Crystals®, Stevia®, Truvia® and PureVia®6.

6. Sucralose, called “the yellow packet”

Saccharin and sucralose are heat stable and are easiest to use in baking and cooking. It’s available to buy in dissolvable tablets, granular tablets and baking blends.

Brand names include N’Joy® and Splenda® 

Using sugar substitutes in cooking and baking

Read packages carefully for specific instructions on the best way to substitute the low-calorie sweetener for sugar in recipes. Things to know when using a sugar substitute:

  • Baked products may be lighter in color because of the lack of browning effect found in real sugar
  • Volume may be lower in cakes, muffins and sweet breads because of the lack of bulking ability in real sugar
  • The texture may be altered
  • There may be an aftertaste with some of the substitutes
  • Cooking time may vary
  • Products may not keep as long