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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sweet sweet death?


Hello kiddos, how has everyone been?  I know it's been a while, and I sort of cheated in December by reposting my rant against the war on christmas, which I will rewrite and hopefully improve, but around the holidays it gets busy, even for us secular humanist atheist skeptic types. (I think that's enough labels for now.)  There has been a lot that's happened in the world of science and skepticism.  New exo-planets, Sylvia Browne and Duane Gish passing away, new biotech coming on line, Burzynski being investigated, again, (Yes!), and Kevin Trudeau going to jail (double Yes!!).  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  So many things I want to talk about, and nowhere near enough time to research them.  Unless I quit my job, find a way to make money blogging and doing skeptic work, and never leave the house.  Or sleep. I'm open to suggestions, if anyone out there has any ideas of how to pull this off.  So, for now,  I'm going to reach into my critical thinking cap and pull out one of the many topics that I've seen pop up on FaceBook....And the winner is:


Aspartame
     This is a subject that comes up pretty regularly in my news feed from people I know and after the article, there is the obligatory message that generally paraphrases into "OMG, I'm never putting that crap into my body again!  Why are they trying to kill us?" Next to GMO's, chemtrails, and "miracle cures", this is one of the most common threads I see and that I am asked about.  I know that others , including the SGU (skeptics guide to the universe) included, have already covered it, but because it constantly shows up, I've decided I'm going to take a look at it as well.

History
     For those that don't know, aspartame is an artificial sweetener developed in 1965 by James Schlatter.  Like a great many other discoveries, this one was accidental.  Schlatter was actually working on an anti-ulcer medication when he licked his finger and discovered something sweet was on it. (I have always wondered who the hell licks their fingers in a chem lab?)  Because it's a food additive, it's regulated by the FDA, so aspartame had to go through a lot of regulatory testing to prove it's safety before it could put into food products.  In 1975, 10 years after its discovery, the FDA began reviewing studies on the safety of aspartame.  In 1980, 15 years after Schlatter discovered it on his finger, it was approved for use in dry foods, and 3 years later, it could be used in carbonated drinks. Another 10 years, and in 1993, it was approved to be used in baked goods, other drinks, and candies.  3 years after that, all restrictions were lifted. That was 1996, 31 years after it's discovery.  31 years of research and studies by numerous groups and governmental agencies before it deemed safe enough to be used with no restrictions. Yet people claim it's going to basically destroy everyone that consumes it.
    Initially, there were some problems, namely with the lab procedures used by G.E. Searle, the company that Schlatter worked for, during their testing.  In 1984, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) studied reports of health issues that people believed were due to consumption of aspartame.  You can read a synopsis of the study here.  Basically what it says is that there is no real link between aspartame and the complaints people were making.  Apsartame has also been studied by the WHO (World Health Organization), UK Food standards Agency, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority, making it perhaps the most rigorously studied food stuff ever.  It's approved for use in over 90 countries as of the writing of this article.

What is it?
Aspartame is actually a fairly simple compound made up of 2 amino acids.  You remember amino acids, right?  The basic building blocks of life?  I am not a biochemist, so I am not going to attempt to describe their exact make up in great depth.   Aspartame is made up of L-phenylalanine and L-aspartate.  and it looks like this:

(image from Google Images)


Like I said, it's a fairly simple compound.  It is also 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way.   The main purpose of an amino acid is to build proteins. The arrangement of the amino acids determine the shape and function of the protein, and life is driven by proteins.  Without proteins, there would be no structures such as skin and bone, hormones couldn't be transported through the body, and no antibodies to fight infections.  And that is only the beginning of the list that proteins do.  And it all starts with a few amino acids forming a chain.  Aspartame rapidly breaks down in the digestive system into it's component parts, which are aspartic acid (an amino acid), phenylalanine (another amino acid), and methanol (methyl alcohol, a normal product of the metabolic process).  And, yes, it does further break down into formaldehyde and formic acid, but before you get worried about that diet coke you've been sipping while reading this, it's fine.  Production of fomaldehyde and formic acid are normal products of the break down of foods into usable components.  As a matter of fact, formic acid is excreted  faster than it's produced by consuming aspartame.  And as for formaldehyde, there can be higher levels of it in your system after consuming all natural fruit juice!

Controversies
There have been controversies surrounding aspartame almost as long as it's been available.  Some of these include that it's not natural, it causes various cancers, hyperactivity in children, problems with various organs, neurological problems, and on and on.  Lately, Mercola has been calling it the most dangerous substance on the planet, never mind that there is more testing and research on aspartame than anything that Dr. Joseph Mercola tries to sell on his site.  After looking around, most chemists and biologists seem to agree that Clostridium botulinum tops the list. I didn't see aspartame on anyones list, except for some natural health sites. (C. botulinum is botulism. The same thing that causes food poisoning and is used for Botox treatments.) He makes a long series of claims, all of which have been disproven by multiple studies from multiple agencies. In his article, he takes the breakdown components of aspartame, lists their percentages of aspartame, and the dangers of consuming them. The way it's written, aside from trying to frighten people, is misleading.  I will agree with him that each of the components is deadly, but the caveat is that it is dependent on the dosage!  If you drink straight formaldehyde, yes, you will more than likely die.  Same for methanol.  The amounts that you would ingest in your everyday, normal diet, however, are no where near the lethal amounts.  He names a great many health problems, ranging from headaches, migraines, depression and anxiety attacks to rashes, tinnitus, and vision problems.  He also says that Alzheimers, epilepsy, and brain tumors can be aggravated by the consumption of aspertame.  Now, I've talked briefly about Mercola, and sites like his before.  For the most part, these "natural health" sites are designed to scare the hell out of people and then get them to buy their alternative products that are supposed to be safer.  (As a side note, Dr. Joseph Mercola is actually a doctor...of Osteopathy.  Take that as you will.)  If you go to any of these sites, and I don't recommend it, look at the navigation bar.  Everyone of them is going to have a "store" heading where they sell al sorts of pseudoscientific bullshit.  If you go to the about pages, almost everyone of them will say something along the lines of "Big Pharma doesn't want you to know this, don't trust "western" medicine or allopaths, don't believe the media hype, don't be a sheeple" and so on.  What he never acknowledges is that, as I've stated, aspertame is one of the most studied food stuffs on the planet, and very few problems have ever been found.  Even Cancer.org had no research saying that there is a link between aspertame and any form of cancer.  Every last damned thing he lists as a problem caused by aspertame has been studied multiple times, and the findings have shown aspertame is not the culprit.  A lot of what he does falls directly into the realm of the conspiracy theorists and their tactics.  All in all, like many other Woo subjects, most of the "controversies" that are brought up by people are actually created by people with either a lack of knowledge in that particular area or they have something to sell.

Dangers
I was able to find 1 main problem with aspertame.  People that suffer from PKU (phenylketonuria) are unable to process phenylalanine.  PKU is a genetic disorder which can lead to a series of neurological disorders including seizures and mental disabilities.  This can be controlled through diet, and avoiding phenylalanine.  Children are tested for this condition at birth, just so their parents will know to monitor their diets.  Otherwise, looking through the WHO, CDC, and Pubmeds, I couldn't really find anything to substantiate any of the claims on the Mercola site.

Conclusion
I would say feel free to enjoy that diet soda, just, like all things, do it in moderation.  With all the research behind it, I have no problem with aspartame, except I personally don't like the taste of diet foods.  Like anything else, when you hear a claim, look into it and see what is going on.  Check the sources, make sure they are reputable, and don't have an agenda.

Until next time, be good, be reasonable, and be sure to hug your favorite skeptic.

The Skeptical Okie