Response to some aspartame-related comments – Part I

This is the first in a series of responses to comments that were recently posted on my Aspartame and Formaldahyde entry, the bulk of them by Betty Martini. I am placing the responses here to create a new place for any comments that follow and also to allow the content to be more readily available when the same material comes up again (my blog is certainly  not the only place that these comments have been placed, the bulk of it is material has been submitted to Usenet and any blogs discussing aspartame since the 90s). I am perhaps wasting my time responding to them, but I feel like so many of these claims have been left unchallenged for too many years.

Here goes…

Was the  New Mexico Legislature “misled”?

ASPARTAME FLACK TRIES TO MISLEAD NEW MEXICO LEGISLATURE … http://rense.com/general75/flak.htm

This is a document that was essentially intended as a rebuttal to statements that John E. Garst (a frequent commenter here) made regarding aspartame as part of efforts to prevent the New Mexico legislature from banning its use. As best I can tell, the bills never even got out of committee.

Sidebar: NM legislature submitted bills on the banning of aspartame

It seems that one state senator, Gerald Ortiz y Pino, made it a practice to just keep submitting the “rescind aspartame approval” bills, even though they didn’t go anywhere (simply getting submitted and going to “action postponed indefinitely”, API, status. In other words, dying) – SB 250 (2006), SB 654 (2006) . But there were also attempts in the House, by one Irvin Harrison. In the failed API’d HB 202 (2006) and  HB 391 (2007), its clear that whoever wrote these bills bought into the unscientific, and unsubstantiated, claims of the anti-aspartame movement. They seem to have the same text, so here’s the representative portion:

“The legislature finds it is imperative for the public health, safety and welfare to declare that aspartame and its derivative compounds, in all of their trade names, are poisonous and deleterious food additives due to their neurotoxic and carcinogenic metabolites.”

Simply read any of the articles from my “Aspartame” section to see that these claims are simply not credible. If you read the minutes of the sessions, in both cases it is newspaper editor/writer Stephen Fox who is the constituent asking for the ban of aspartame. The minutes said that he presented a document called “Report for Schools, OB-GYN and Pediatricians on Children and Aspartame/MSG”. I won’t leave the reader in suspense about who the authors of that “report” were: Ralph Walton, Russell Blaylock, and HJ Roberts, Joe Mercola, the Feingold Association, and “prepared” by Betty Martini. So the actions of the Ortiz, Harrison and Fox were not exactly chance occurences that our friends from wnho.net stumbled upon.

It’s clear that the attempt by two members of the New Mexico legislature did not introduce anything new to the case, and, even and they succeeded, would not have “proved” anything. One only look at the fact that the US Congress has Creationists as part of its Science and Technology Committee.

And now onto the claims

At the say so level: R G Walton M.D. Chairman, Center for Behavioral Medicine at NE Ohio College of Medicine analyzed 92 peer-reviewed studies not funded by aspartame industry. 92% found PROBLEMS!

In 95 the FDA listed 92 reactions from 10,000 volunteered complaints, including death.

This lists of “92 peer-reviewed studies” by Walton and “92 reactions” from FDA seem to have become a centerpiece of the anti-aspartame movement. I have already covered the Walton list and, long story short, most of the studies either have nothing to do with aspartame or aren’t even a peer-reviewed study at all. There’s also not actually 92 as some are duplicates. Being very generous, 5 of the entries are both peer-reviewed and potentially relate in some “negative” way to aspartame (but you can view the above link andy my spreadsheet to see the details). The FDA list has also been discussed (Extraordinary claims about aspartame and Sweet Misery Fact Check)

H. J. Roberts, M.D., FACP a diabetic specialist has produced 20 books and his first text on medical diagnosis was used by 60,000 doctors to prepare for their Board examinations.

As the name of the book is not mentioned, this claim is difficult to check. The closest thing I can find to a textbook from Roberts is “Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic”. But perhaps it is “Useful insights for diagnosis, treatment, and public health” ? If Betty Martini can clarify this statement, which she made multiple times in my blog comments, I can better track down the truth and/or relevance of this claim.

(from section quoting H.J. Roberts)

*The assertion that methanol concentrations never are very high after aspartame ingestion is erroneous. I devoted an entire chapter to methanol toxicity in my text, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic (pp 668-685), and show in Figure XXI-1 the dose-related blood levels of methanollasting 8 or more hours.

This is a common tactic of the anti-aspartame folks, redirecting the reader to the dangers of methanol toxicity, which are well known and not disputed. The issue is that aspartame does not actually lead to a large amount of methanol in the body, so it’s not a relevant comparison.

There is another bullet point that addresses John E. Garst’s comments about folate deficiency, saying that its not as widespread and then saying the problem is really phenylalanine. I don’t really have any notes about folate deficiency, so will let John respond if he wants. However, bringing up phenylalanine as part of the “aspartame disease” is also a bit pointless given the low volumes of phenylalanine compared to other foods (bananas, eggs, milk, meat).

Remember that Dr. Alemanys study proved the formaldehyde converted from the free methyl alcohol embalms living tissue and damages DNA. As we know when you damage DNA you can destroy humanity

Appeal to emotion here… the Trocho study (not “Alemanys”, Alemany is the last name listed) did no such thing and a response to it (well, a citation to the actual response) can be found in the very article that was being commented on.

Even the FDA found many types of tumors and brain cancer on original studies and the Ramazzini Study in 2005 confirmed FDA findings reporting the study showed aspartame to be a multipotential carcinogen.

The Ramazzini study has been decimated by both the FDA and the European EFSA. In fact, in 2009 the EFSA reaffirmed their original 2006 response. Not sure what the “FDA found many types of tumors” is referring to exactly, as there is no citation. But the FDA is certainly ok with the safety of aspartame, so its a bit moot.

Mark Gold of the Aspartame Toxicity Center says this short document answers all of the aspartame industrys claims about aspartame and formaldehyde poisoning: http://www.holisticmed.com/aspartame/abuse/methanol.html

Believe it or not, the referenced link document is actually the one that kick-started my interest in aspartame and led to the writing of “Aspartame and Formaldehyde”. That article is essentially a direct response to the Mark Gold link.

Does a 1970 “Trade Secret” document from Searle reveal an intent to hide DKP dangers?

Jan 12, 2013 @ 9:06

  1. Yes, that’s FDA stationery in a letter to me.

In reference to the “92 Symptoms” document, which I’ve already covered in two separate articles: Extraordinary claims about aspartame and Sweet Misery Fact Check

  1. Maybe the list would like to see the secret trade information which the manufacturer did give in congressional hearings. Even the hearings are on http://www.mpwhi.com/trade_secret_information_on_aspartame.htm. Notice the last paragraph where they admitted they had to conclude almost complete conversion to DKP, the brain tumor agent. What they are saying if they let the FDA they won’t get it approved.

This is a link to a page that refers to a memo from a “Mr. Helling” with a subject of “Food and Drug Sweetener Strategy” and dated December 28, 1970. Taking for granted that the document is legitimate, it discusses some admittedly shady-sounding ideas for getting “Food & Drug” to say “yes”. Having been around sales people, none of that is new nor, I’d argue, particularly relevant to the safety. More relevant is the section discussing DKP. In it they seem to look to get approval for products which would have the least change of breakdown to DKP, namely dry foods or ones which have an acid ingredient. Quoting the Hellig document itself: “If we select foods that have their storage in dry form particularly if they are formulated so there is an acid ingredient, then we would have confidence that the SC-18362 would not break down measurably during the usual maximum storage periods… [such as] a pre-sweetened cereal product that’s consumed cold.”

They go on to discuss other products in different categories, all with the goal of avoiding the breakdown to DKP, especially until they have more data about DKP.

They also note that they believe that “based on the toxicity data that we have in the feeding studies, we expect to get approvals”

Martini’s statement about the last paragraph is a complete misrepresentation. What the last paragraph actually says is that they should not try go for “spoon-for-spoon” (i.e. in place of sugar by consumers) use because they have no way of estimating maximum usage and therefore would need to assume a maximum conversion to DKP. This is just complementing the rest of the document discussing what they see as the safe usage based on their DKP studies.

  1. I flew to Barcelona to see Dr. Maria Alemany who did the Trocho Study showing the formaldehyde from the free methyl alcohol embalms living tissue. The first thing he said to me was that aspartame will kill 200 million people.

There’s no real reason to address the Trocho, it has been covered here and within the scholarly community.

Is aspartame linked with sudden death?

  1. People are even dropping dead from it. Go to http://www.mpwhi.com and read some of the doctor’s reports on sudden cardiac death. There are buttons at the top of the page.

As to the sudden death, this (appears to be) a reference to http://www.mpwhi.com/aspartame_and_sudden_death.htm, which has 6 links:
Link 1: http://www.wnho.net/heart_disease_links.htm – Despite Martini’s commentary about “why” diet soda is linked to heart disease, the article simply reports that researchers found that red meat and diet soda (Lutsey, 2008) were linked to higher risk of heart disease which they believed was most likely related to other behaviors correlated with drinking diet soda.
Link 2: http://www.wnho.net/aspartame_and_arrhythmias.htm
This is from  H.J. Roberts discussing athlete deaths which they believe are related to aspartame. In the Roberts one is discusses a review of sudden athlete deaths which he believes are really because of aspartame (he notes that the study author makes no mention whatsoever of aspartame). He then links to a bunch of his own articles, not studies, on aspartame risks.

The closest thing to a study to his “Reactions to aspartame containing products: 551 cases”, which I was unable to find the actual content of. However it was responded to by Magnuson et al ((Magnuson, 2007):

No information on the actual amount or duration of aspartame consumption was provided. No details regarding the selection process of reactors were provided. The most common were neurological symptoms including headache,dizziness, confusion and convulsions. Other symptoms were psychiatric (depression, irritability, anxiety) or visual and auditory disturbances. No data were provided regarding whether symptoms were self-diagnosed or were ever confirmed by a medical expert

.. Basically anecdotal data no better than what ends up in AERS (which I’ve discussed elsewhere).
Link 3: http://www.wnho.net/aspartame_msg_scd.htm
The Blaylock one is no better… just his opinion on the “real” cause of sudden athlete deaths. Even better, it’s from PRWeb, which is simply a self-submitted entry into “news” sources.

Link 4: http://rense.com/general82/gcar.htm
Discusses George Carlin’s death from heart attack, and then goes on to discuss the study from above which found a correlation between consumption of diet drinks and cardiovascular disease. It also contains the full body of Link 2.

Link 5:http://www.mpwhi.com/rise_in_number_of_people_with_fatal_allergies.htm
Another article by Betty Martini, not a study of any sort.

Link 6: Limited-Edition Diet Coke Can For The Heart Truth Revealed!
Huffington Post link that actually 404s. The same article is on stylelist.com. In any case, this isn’t even a anti-aspartame article but actually was part of a promo campaign. Betty Martini’s instructions are to go and leave negative comments. Good times.

  1. Also, if you read the United Press International 8 month investigation of aspartame you will see that it took Don Rumsfeld to get it on the market.

This is more of the same of the type of stuff from the Sweet Misery documentary… lots and lots of quotes from various people about how bad aspartame might be, or how it shouldn’t have been approved, and so on. What it does not have is citations for evidence linking aspartame to actual ills. The longer that aspartame is on the market, the more clear it becomes how much it is not leading to some crazy epidemic of… anything.

REFERENCES

Lutsey, Pamela L., Lyn M. Steffen, and June Stevens. “Dietary Intake and the Development of the Metabolic Syndrome The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study.” Circulation 117, no. 6 (2008): 754-761.

Magnuson, B. A., et al. “Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies.” CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology 37.8 (2007): 629-727.

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Sweet Misery Fact Check – Part 1

There is an HTML version available at http://tinyurl.com/sweetfact1

A PDF version is available at: https://whatdoesthesciencesay.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/sweetmiseryfactcheckpart1.pdf

Introduction

I have covered aspartame twice before, but I thought to finally get it out of my system I would cover the documentary “Sweet Misery” which essentially contains all of the claims I have seen previously (and some of which I’ve covered) as well as the cast of characters which frequently pop up with this topic. In this way I can address the whole gamut of aspartame claims and be done with it.

For the most part, the movie amounts to 90 minutes of anecdotal evidence of aspartame causing all manner of harm. A few of the guests in the documentary at least have medical degrees, but their statements frequently contradict the best scientific evidence we have and are often backed only by books that they themselves have written.

As you read this, you will notice a trend in my thinking that I want to make clear now. As a non-scientist, I am only “qualified” to trust consensus scientific evidence. While it may turn out in the future that a series of high quality, reproducible, studies will emerge which demonstrate a link between aspartame and a number of neurological disorders, this has not occurred yet. A large body of anecdotes do not count as studies. Individual studies do not really even count as evidence against the large amount of existing studies. Odds are, individual studies (no matter what they find, for or against aspartame) are wrong in some way. It takes a volume of studies to create that proper body of evidence that leads to a consensus.

So you may read this paper and find yourself thinking “he is just trusting scientists, he is just trusting the government, but they lie to us/are bought by industry/are biased”. I do not trust scientists, I trust science. And the current science shows no link between aspartame and all of these disorders. You should not trust me. And you certainly should not trust a few people in a documentary. But I firmly believe you should trust the large body of actual, peer-reviewed, studies that make of the evidence, especially in the form of reviews of multiple studies which can aggregate the results. I have no evidence of wide-spread corruption and fraud in the scientific community in this regard. Individual cases, sure. That’s why you go with the wide body of evidence.

If you are convinced that anything that comes from “mainstream” science is flawed, you may as well stop reading now.

Cast of Characters

The doctors and patients in the video are all people who are violently opposed to aspartame. The patients are not random people they found who had these issues, but are actively engaged in the idea that aspartame causes any number of issues.

The “Experts”

Russell Blaylock is a retired neurosurgeon who writes and speaks frequently about “excitotoxins” (which is not very prevalent in the scientific literature). He even manages to bring autism into the picture. He is also anti-fluoride.

Jim Bowen is a former medical doctor who appears to believe in all manner of other conspiracy theories, especially those related to the “Zionist Conspiracy”. You can easily find him searching for “Jim Bowen aspartame” on Google. He also wrote a pleasantly-titled article called “Aspartame Murders Infants”. He also appears as one of the sufferers in the video.

Arthur Evangelista is apparently a former FDA investigator (not sure how to confirm or deny this) who, ironically enough, runs a company that helps herbal supplement company “avert” oversight by the FDA. His PhD is in “Industrial and Occupational Safety”, not biochemistry, biology, chemistry, etc.

HJ Roberts appears to be/have been a doctor, but now writes books against apartame. One aspect, at least, where he seems to be “right” is in his criticism of taking vitamin E supplements in large doses. That criticism appears to be backed by real science. But otherwise his views do not appear to fit with mainstream consensus science.

Ralph Walton is psychiatrist who believes that aspartame leads to number of neurological disorders. I have covered [1]his supposed list of 97 “peer reviewed” articles against apartame previously (in short, while it is a list containing about 97 items… most are not peer-reviewed, about aspartame, or even against aspartame).

Many of the sufferers in the video have websites and and are in business related to anti-aspartame and “natural” industries. However I could not absolutely positively identify them (I would rather not link to sites that turn out not to be the same person) and so will leave that as an exercise for the reader. But as far as I could tell, these were not simply people they found off the street who were affected by aspartame, but rather fellow anti-aspartame crusaders.

The point is not to promote the genetic fallacy or perform an ad hominem attack, but rather to show that these are not necessarily “experts” who we should take at face value and that we should be extra sure to look into the evidence (or lack of) that they present for their claims. The claims must still stand or fall on their own grounds.

The Claims

Claim: Studies show a growing trend of multiple sclerosis, brain tumors, diabetes,etc in recent years linked to the introduction and usage of aspartame

Claim is made in first three minutes of video by the narrator, Russel Blaylock and HJ Roberts.

HJ Roberts says he noticed “conflicting” themes and that the rise was not due to lack of adequate scanning devices and that other cancers stayed the same while brain cancer incidence went up.

It’s not clear what studies are showing this trend (as the documentary doesn’t have a list of sources), but, at least for brain tumors, the incidence has bounced up and down and in fact started going up before aspartame was introduced, and went back down between 1990 and 2002.

Brain Tumors

According to the National Cancer Institute:

From 1990 to 2002, the overall age-adjusted incidence rates for brain cancer decreased slightly; from 7.0 cases to 6.4 cases for every 100,000 persons in the United States. The mortality rate from 1990 to 2002 also decreased slightly; from 4.9 deaths to 4.5 for every 100,000 persons in the United States.[2]

“Incidence” refers to the numbers of new cases.

NCI Continues, “However, aside from the small percentage of brain tumor cases that can be linked to exposure to high-dose ionizing radiation or to certain inherited genetic alterations, few specific risk factors have been convincingly linked to brain tumors.”

They do mention that they are looking at “sweeteners” (among many other things) as potential causes, but studies were initiated in 1994 and I think I can show that aspartame has been ruled out quite well.

The Olney Study

I suspect that their “source” for the information in the first place, as the documentary makes reference to it, is the infamous J.W. Olney (mentioned above) study brain tumor “study” which looked at brain tumor incidence. The study has been highly criticised for cherry-picking the data and its methodology.

The NCI addresses the study and mention the fact that brain tumor incidence rises (for the time in question for this documentary) started 8 years prior to the introduction of aspartame:

Questions regarding the safety of aspartame were renewed by a 1996 [the Olney study]  report suggesting that an increase in the number of people with brain tumors between 1975 and 1992 might be associated with the introduction and use of this sweetener in the United States. However, an analysis of then-current NCI statistics showed that the overall incidence of brain and central nervous system cancers began to rise in 1973, 8 years prior to the approval of aspartame, and continued to rise until 1985. Moreover, increases in overall brain cancer incidence occurred primarily in people age 70 and older, a group that was not exposed to the highest doses of aspartame since its introduction. These data do not establish a clear link between the consumption of aspartame and the development of brain tumors.  [3]

Additionally, from the French Food Safety (AFSSA) report on aspartame from 2002 (French 2011 [4]) (emphasis mine):

 In 1996, Olney et al. published an article.. the authors concluded that there was a significant increase in the frequency of brain tumours in the mid-1980s, that is to say the period following aspartame came onto the market.  The conclusions of this epidemiological  study have been criticised by a number of  scientists who questioned the methodology, the use of the data and their interpretation (Levy et al., 1996; Linet et al., 1999; Ross, 1998; Seife, 1999; Smith et al., 1998). One of the major criticism is that the authors  only took into account the frequency of brain tumours during a selected period (1975-1992). When all the epidemiological data are used (1973-1992) a different conclusion is reached, as the frequency of brain cancers began to increase in 1973 and stabilised from the mid-1980s (Levy  et al., 1996). Furthermore, Olney  et al. did not provide any quantitative or qualitative relationship between the exposure of the population to aspartame and the observed frequency of brain tumours.

Additionally, there was a case-control study that attempted to demonstrate any sort of link, and failed to do so (Gurney 1997). [5]

In short, except for the Olney statistical analysis, all actual studies of humans and the data demonstrate no link between brain cancer and aspartame usage.

Multiple Sclerosis

Even the National Multiple Sclerosis Society does not support the claim that aspartame has anything to do with it. On their “Old Theories That Have Been Disproved” page, they put aspartame in there with allergies and owning a dog as having no scientific evidence linking it with MS. (National [6])

Or if you’re not a fan of the National MS Society, how about the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation? On their page “Examining the Safety of Aspartame”, they call out the “Nancy Merkle” hoax which kick started a lot of this nonsense and state pragmatically [7]:

While nothing can be considered 100 percent safe, aspartame has undergone extensive testing. With the exception of a few very mild side effects, aspartame appears to be quite safe. Those individuals, who experience problems after consuming aspartame, should eliminate foods and beverages that contain this sweetener from their diet.

I think it would stretch credibility quite a bit to believe that both of these groups are somehow “in the pocket” of the NutraSweet company.

Diabetes

Jim Bowen makes the claim that Diabetes jumped 33% (not sure which years)

Since 1960 or so, diabetes incidence has grown by about 3% a year (Onkamo 1999 [8], Diabetes [9]).  So over any given 10 year period, it would grow ~30% from the start. So a very misleading statistic.

Claim Summary

Misleading and wrong. Brain tumor incidence did go up, but not from aspartame. And incidence actually dropped in subsequent years (while usage of apartame has probably gone up). Aspartame did not cause a rise in brain tumors or multiple sclerosis. Not only is there no evidence linking aspartame with brain tumors, but when anybody actually tries to find evidence for it, the studies demonstrate nothing. So this is not a case of there just not being enough/no testing. There is a wealth of testing which has led to negative evidence of a link between aspartame and these disorders.  So what opponents of aspartame mean when they say there hasn’t been “enough” testing is really that there hasn’t been enough that agrees with their view.

Claim: The components of aspartame break down into poisons and build up in the body over long periods of time to create toxic effects

Approximately minutes 4 to 7, with some later as well

Russell Blaylock – People say they take MSG, aspartame with no obvious effects. “Subtle toxic effects in those who don’t have obvious problems” Over long term will have disease.

… long term “Exposure to large amounts of the components of aspartame is toxicity”.

… “We know aspartame is a poison,it affects protein synthesis, and how the synapse operates in the brain. Affects DNA”

… “Sub-chronic level” … Slow build up of toxins. Disrupts endocrine system

“aspartame with carbohydrates, reduces availability of L-tryptophan, an precursor for seratonin”

… “methyl ester becomes free methyl alcohol.. a real poison”

… “made sense that aspartame would lower seizure threshold”

… “Poisonous effect of methyl alcohol and ester is well known”

Lorena: Drinking water.  “Searched for aspartame. Eyes lit up and started crying. I counted 79 of the 92 symptoms”

Methanol/Methyl Alcohol

I have a whole article essentially devoted to methanol/formaldehyde from aspartame that you can review, but I have looked a bit deeper for this current one[[10]]. While it is technically true that aspartame has methanol (and then formaldehyde) as one of its metabolic byproducts, it is also a bit of a red herring. Fruits break down into more methanol than numerous cans of soda. Meat contains much more phenylalanine than aspartame.

Kirchner found .8 mg/kg of fresh orange juice and 62 mg/kg stored and canned (Kirchner 1957 [11]). Assuming my math is right, this would equate to about 0.2mg in a fresh 8oz glass, and about 15mg stored. Compare this with a single 12oz can of soda, which has about 150mg (on the high end) of aspartame, 10% (15mg) of which metabolizes to methanol. Nobody seems to think the orange juice is going to kill you. On the low end of aspartame concentrations, juices and fruits are going to have much more. And anti-aspartame advocates are well of aware of this, and simply claim that there are “protective factors” in these fruits, juices and wines that make it not matter. This is special pleading. There is no evidence that methanol from aspartame in fact builds up.

The actual reason for the toxicity of methanol is from the build-up of formic acid/formate from high acute ingestion of methanol within a single exposure (good luck finding a study that finds evidence of long-term build up… they all refer to acute exposure). There is no evidence that it builds up indefinitely over years. In fact, the formic acid is able to leave the body faster than it is produced. Formaldehyde by itself appears to not contribute directly to the toxic effects of high doses of methanol (McMartin 1978 [12]).

Scientists have in fact looked at whether or not there might be build up of formic acid or methanol in the blood following ingestion of aspartame… and there simply is not.

Lewis Stegink performed a study finding no increased levels of formate after consumption if even “abuse” levels of aspartame (Stegink 1981 [13]). Stegink also has a larger review of the studies performed on the various components in aspartame, in which he discuses the results of that study and others which have looked into formic acid build-up:

blood and urine formate levels were determined in subjects administered the highest dose of aspartame (200 mg/kg body weight). No significant change in blood formate concentration was noted however, urinary formate excretion was increased significantly over preloading values in urine samples collected 0-4 h and 4-8 h after aspartame loading. Urinary formate excretion returned to preloading values in samples determined 8-24 h after loading. Because the rate of formate synthesis apparently did not exceed the rate of formate metabolism and excretion, blood formate levels were not detectably elevated. Thus, there appears to be little risk from aspartame’s methanol content at the doses studied (Stegink 1987 [14]).

In other words… the body easily gets rid of the byproducts via urination. When dri benking/eating products containing aspartame, you are not getting an acute dose of methanol that would cause harm. The normal metabolic processes of your body get rid of the methanol. If it didn’t, then you would have to avoid fruits and vegetables as well.

Phenylalanine

While people with the rare disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid products containing phenylalanine, diet soda and other “light” products are the least of their worries. A single can of soda is going to have ~150mg (0.150g) of aspartame. Let’s say 50% of that is phenylalanine, which would get you about 0.075g (75mg)  in a can of soda.

Using a tool available at http://www.bitelog.com/narrow-food-search.htm, you can calculate how much of a nutrient is contained in various food items.

An 8oz glass of milk contains 0.395g of phenylalanine.

An 8oz hamburger has 2.29g of phenylalanine.

1 medium banana has about .058g of phenylalanine.

So < 0.1g is well below many other foods that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Even if you drink 6 cans a day, you only get a little bit past the glass of milk but still nowhere near a hamburger.

Aspartic Acid

Aspartic acid is one of the “non-essential” amino acids, as our body is able to synthesize it on its own. In high doses, some would call it an “excitotoxin” but I can find little evidence of this being backed by scientific consensus. I have not seen too many specific claims against aspartic acid, so I don’t see any reason to talk too much about it.

Claim: There have been thousands of complaints to FDA about aspartame, more for neurological conditions

3:41 HJ Roberts – By 1988, “80% of complaints about food additives were for aspartame”. Where’s the evidence of this?

I covered this one a bit in my article entitle “Extraordinary Claims about Aspartame in the Huffington Post”. The fact of the matter is that there is no real evidence that the document shown in the documentary is legitimate. Even assuming it is, there are thousands of complaints about many additives submitted each year, but after investigation they are not reproducible. The list of 92 symptoms appears to come from yet another document by, not surprisingly, Betty Martini. As best I can tell, the scan of the document she (claims to have) received from the FDA is located on Scribd.  But, as I will discuss below, the FDA (and others) has looked into the various reports and found no real causation.

The FDA does in fact have an Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS), where you can go and report effects you believe you’ve had (and naturally people have reported aspartame). The FDA uses this to compile a list of “potential” dangers that consumers and health officials should be aware of (FDA 2010, Potential [15]). However, you won’t find Aspartame listed in that current set. Or for that matter on any of the warnings from 2008 to 2010.

I think it is useful to quote from the FDA here about what the AERS is and is not as it relates to causality (FDA AERS [16]):

AERS data do have limitations. First, there is no certainty that the reported event was actually due to the product. FDA does not require that a causal relationship between a product and event be proven, and reports do not always contain enough detail to properly evaluate an event. Further, FDA does not receive all adverse event reports that occur with a product. Many factors can influence whether or not an event will be reported, such as the time a product has been marketed and publicity about an event. Therefore, AERS cannot be used to calculate the incidence of an adverse event in the U.S. population.

If you would like to dive into the actual complaints available, there are data files you can download. If aspartame were such a danger, there should be at least a few references for aspartame, but I don’t find any. You will however find aspirin in there, which makes sense as it is a potent and effective drug [17].

This documentary (and list shown on screen) show various neurological disorders that aspartame apparently causes, but the majority of these are diseases and disorders for which the the medical community does not have a known cause or cure. So of course we cannot definitively say “aspartame did not cause this.” However, aspartame most definitely is not in the running by any established or credible research agency into any of these diseases.

Tollefson and Barnard did an analysis in 1992 of the 900 or so claims available at the time. They only looked into seizure related ones and found that the data “did not support the claim” of a linkage to seizures and aspartame consumption (Tollefson [18]).

A more overarching review was done by the CDC, and also found no reason to suspect a “widespread public health hazard” (but cautioned that were a small number that could be attributable to aspartame)  (Bradstock 1986 [19]).

Claim Summary

There is always a chance that a small number of people have side effects from aspartame. Like any chemical, it can react to the body. But when apparent claims are looked into broadly, they come to nothing. And in the case of these specific symptoms, they are generic ones that we all go through for random reasons and rarely have obvious causes (itching, headaches, etc). So, if you feel weird after consuming aspartame stop consuming it. But millions of us consume it without ill effects. Both sides are anecdotal evidence, not science. The science shows that there is no effect across a broad spectrum.

Claim: People who stop consuming aspartame have their symptoms go away, and re-intake causes symptoms to come back

Approximately minutes 9 to 25, with some gaps. Claim is made by Joan (Goodman), Ed Johnson, HJ Roberts,Jim Bowen, Lorena Murray

“When I got off of NutraSweet, the symptoms stopped” … “My doctors will not say it is aspartame in the official records, but say it to the side” … “She didn’t have lupus or MS.. her husband made her stop drinking the diet drinks and the symptoms went away” … “I put the diet drink down, Friday the 19th… within 24 hours” … “When aspartame removed, the symptoms go away. That’s what you call strong circumstantial evidence”

HJ Roberts: “after they re-challenge themselves with aspartame, the symptoms come back, sometimes within minutes. That’s more than anecodotal. “That’s reproducing the problem. Many of these ‘aspartame reacters’ have testing themselves multiple times”.

Jim Bowen says with his patients when they go off aspartame it goes away. Says he developed therapeutic outlooks working with experts on environmental toxicology.

Not “more than” anecdotal

First of all, these various claims are not “more than” anecdotal. They fit absolutely into the very definition of anecdotal. Having a lot of (supposed) people making a claim does not suddenly carry the weight of actual science. The claim must be tested.

Definitions of ‘anecdote’/’anecdotally’:

  • From dictionary.com: “non-scientific observations or studies, which do not provide proof but may assist research efforts
  • From oxforddictionaries.com: “(of an account) not necessarily true or reliable, because based on personal accounts rather than facts or research”

In other words, it stops being an anecdote when the claims are tested with an actual controlled study. For the case of multiple sclerosis, it does not appear that there is enough scientific plausibility to even warrant a study. As noted at the beginning, the various national MS foundations/groups absolutely do not support this claim. In the case of migraines controlled studies find no link (and sometimes a negative link!) [[20],[21]]. For brain tumors, no link. Seizures, very little link (except those with PKU). So, sure, start with anecdotes. But when the science shows no link, accept it and move on. Of course still follow the advice that applies for all food and drugs: If you get ill effects from using it, stop using it.

Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis

The most common form of MS — 85% of people are initially diagnosed with this, versus 15% of the progressive form — is what is known as relapsing-remitting MS where the sufferer has occasional relapses, sometimes coming on suddenly over a period of days or even hours. This is followed by long periods, months and often years, of remission with complete recovery. RRMS affects women at a 2:1 ratio to men and it usually occurs in the 20s and 30s. After approximately 10 years, but even up to 30 years, later it will usually progress to Secondary-Progressive MS in which there is less remission. [[22]]

There is no way to know whether or not the people in the video actually had MS, or if they had the “popular” RRMS early form. But based on the fact that there is simply no scientific evidence of a link between aspartame and MS along with the assumption that those appearing in the video are telling the truth, the way that RRMS shows itself is at least a potential explanation for the apparent ability to make the symptoms “disappear” and reappear very quickly… as this is exactly what RRMS does. Couple that with the belief that aspartame is the “only” thing that changed, and you have a recipe for strong correlation without causation. Depending on the person, RRMS can slowly cause permanent degeneration of function and ability, which seemed evident in some of those in the video.

Also, interestingly, incidence of multiple sclerosis appears to increase as you get further from the equator (though this trend has apparently gotten weaker) and the female to male ratio is actually growing.  I would definitely be very surprised if intake of aspartame also follows a distance-from-equator gradient. [[23]]

Conclusion

This article covered the first 30 minutes of the Sweet Misery documentary by Cori Brackett. This part looked at the initial claims that there has been a rising trend in various neurological disorders caused by the toxic byproducts of aspartame. I believe I have demonstrated that these claims are not backed by the scientific evidence. Not only does the scientific consensus not support claims that brain cancer and multiple sclerosis is related to aspartame intake, but the national public and private foundations for these ailments do not support the notion. Additionally, the individual parts of aspartame are contained in much larger quantities in foods that would be considered “harmless” such as fruit and meat.

If you feel weird after consuming aspartame stop consuming it. But millions of us consume it without ill effects. Both sides are anecdotal evidence, not science. The science shows that there is no effect across a broad spectrum.

I plan on doing two more additional articles to cover the full 90 minute movie so that I can be done with aspartame once and for all.


[1] DeWald, Joshua. “Aspartame and Formaldehyde: What does the science say?”. June 13, 2010.

[2] NCI. “National Cancer Institute Brain Tumor Study in Adults: Fact Sheet”. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/brain-tumor-study.Visited April 26, 2011

[3] NCI. “Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer”. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners. Visited April 26, 2011

[4] French Food Safety Agency. “Assessment report: Opinion on a possible link between the exposition to aspartame and the incidence of brain tumors in humans”. May 7, 2002. http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/afssaeng.pdf

[5] Gurney JG, Pogoda JM. J Natl Cancer Inst. Aspartame consumption in relation to childhood brain tumor risk: results from a case-control study. 1997 Jul 16;89(14):1072-4

[6] National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “Old Theories That Have Been Disproved”. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/what-causes-ms/disproved-theories/index.aspx. Visited April 26, 2011

[7] Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. “Examining the Safety of Aspartame”. http://www.msfacts.org/article-details.aspx?articleID=40. Visited April 26, 2011

[8] Onkamo P. “Worldwide Incidence of Type 1 Diabetes–the analysis of the data on published trends”. Diabetologia. 1999 Dec. 42(12).

[9] Diabetes and the Environment. “Type 1 Diabetes Incidence: Historical Trends”. Author includes source references http://www.diabetesandenvironment.org/home/incidence/historical

[10] DeWald, Joshua. What does the Science Say? (blog). “Aspartame and Formaldehyde (Or not…)”. http://wp.me/pH6F5-S

[11] Kirchner JG, Miller JM. Volatile water-soluble and oil constituents of Valencia orange juice. J Agric Food Chem 1957;5:283-91.

[12] McMartin, KE. “Lack of a role for formaldehyde in methanol poisoning in the monkey”. Biochemical Pharmacology. Volume 28, Issue 5. 1 March 1979. pp645-649

[13] Stegink LD, Brummel MC, McMartin K.. Blood methanol concentrations in normal adult subjects administered abuse doses of aspartame. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 7: 281- 290. 1981.

[14] Stegink, LD. “The aspartame story: a model for the clinical testing of a food additive”. Am J Clinical Nutrition. July 1987. Vol 46:1. p207

[15] US Food and Drug Administration. “Potential Signals of Serious Risks/New Safety Information Identified by the Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS) between January – March 2010”. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm216272.htm. Visited 7/12/2010

[16] US Food And Drug Administration. “Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS).” http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm082196.htm. Visited 7/9/2010

[17] US Food And Drug Administration. “The Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS): Latest Quarterly Data Files”. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm082193.htm. Visited 7/9/2010

[18] Tollefson L, Barnard RJ. An analysis of FDA passive surveillance reports of seizures associated with consumption of aspartame. J Am Diet Assoc. 1992 May;92(5):598-601.

[19] Bradstock MK, Serdula MK, Marks JS, Barnard RJ, Crane NT, Remington PL, Trowbridge FL. Evaluation of reactions to food additives: the aspartame experience. Am J Clin Nutr. 1986 Mar;43(3):464-9. PubMed PMID: 3953484.

[20] Schiffman, Susan S., et al., 1987. “Aspartame and Susceptibility to Headache,” The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 317, No. 19, page 1181-1185.

[21] Garriga MM, Berkebile C, Metcalfe DD. A combined single-blind, double-blind,placebo-controlled study to determine the reproducibility of hypersensitivity reactions to aspartame. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1991 Apr;87(4):821-7.

[22] National MS Society. “How Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS) Differs from Progressive Courses of MS”. Visited May 10, 2011. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/relapsing-ms/relapsing-remitting-ms-rrms/how-rrms-differs-from-progressive-courses-of-ms/index.aspx

[23] Alonso A, Hernan M. “Temporal trends in the incidence of multiple sclerosis”. Neurology. July 2008. Vol 71, No 2.

Extraordinary claims about Aspartame in the Huffington Post

You can also get a PDF more suitable for printing.

The Huffington Post recently posted an article by Joseph Mercola which appears to be intended to be about how aspartame manufacturers have rebranded it in an effort to mislead the public (Mercola 2010 [[1]]). The author uses this as a jumping off point to make a large number of claims about the dangers of aspartame, much of which is uncited or outdated. In this article, I will respond to the claims with updated information (when available) and point out where there appears to be no credible source at all for the claim. Carl Sagan put best what will be a major theme of this article: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The article starts light by stating the approval of aspartame was the “most contested” in FDA approval history. As proof, there is a link to the author’s own article (but not stated as such). I would not be surprised to find that nearly all major food additives go through a contentious process, and aspartame was no different. And they should, as this is a matter of safety and all concerns must be heard.

There is certainly still controversy over aspartame and its history, but it seems to be the stuff of conspiracy, not science. In any case, aspartame has been approved by the FDA, and has been safely in use for more than 20 years.

Mercola then moves on to the extraordinary claim (for which no references are provided) that aspartame was once listed as a “biochemical warfare agent claim”. I did manage to find another article on mercola.com where he makes this claim and appears to cite a source as a footnote reference. But there is no actual list of footnotes on that article, so there is no way to check here. Aspartame is most definitely not listed as a biochemical warfare agent and, without credible evidence stating otherwise, it seems unlikely that it ever was in a meaningful way.

Deceptive Marketing?

There is a small section about how some manufacturers have chosen to rebrand aspartame. Based on the title of the whole article, it seemed that this was one of the major points, but it does not take up much space. The gist is that the manufacturer Ajinomoto has rebranded aspartame as “AminoSweet”. It is already also known as NutraSweet and Canderel, so I am not certain what the argument is here. I suppose if one is assuming that aspartame is dangerous and that manufacturers need to “hide” the true nature, then it seems like something he would be mad at. But in no way is the danger demonstrated in this article.

Aspartame Wreaks “Havoc” On Your Health?

After the initial remarks about the history and name change, Mercola moves onto the heart of the article: claims about the dangers of aspartame consumption. This section mainly makes the claim that there have been thousands of complaints to the FDA about side effects of aspartame, and that this demonstrates that it is not safe. In the words of Mercola:

Did you know there have been more reports to the FDA for aspartame reactions than for all other food additives combined?

In fact, there are over 10,000 official complaints, but by the FDA’s own admission, less than 1 percent of those who experience a reaction to a product ever report it. So in all likelihood, the toxic effects of aspartame may have affected roughly a million people already.

This is another claim for which a reference (to the FDA in this case) would be appropriate. This one did not warrant even a link to mercola.com despite forming the basis of the entire section. Searching the Internet a bit, it is possible his source is something like this apparent portion of an email from “Betty Martini” (a person or alias that you can find quite a bit of anti-aspartame content on the Internet). You may notice that this is a link to a page hosted on fda.gov. This is not FDA-sponsored material, but rather comments and documentation that consumers can submit (FDA 2010[[2]]) as part of the approval or petition process. In makes reference of an “official” FDA compilation of 10,000 complaints, but does not actually link to the list. Again, however, this extraordinary claim is not backed by actual evidence.

The FDA does in fact have an Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS), where you can go and report effects you believe you’ve had (and naturally people have reported aspartame). The FDA uses this to compile a list of “potential” dangers that consumers and health officials should be aware of (FDA 2010, Potential[[3]]). However, you won’t find Aspartame listed in that current set. Or for that matter on any of the warnings from 2008 to 2010.

I think it is useful to quote from the FDA here about what the AERS is and is not as it relates to causality (FDA AERS [[4]]):

AERS data do have limitations. First, there is no certainty that the reported event was actually due to the product. FDA does not require that a causal relationship between a product and event be proven, and reports do not always contain enough detail to properly evaluate an event. Further, FDA does not receive all adverse event reports that occur with a product. Many factors can influence whether or not an event will be reported, such as the time a product has been marketed and publicity about an event. Therefore, AERS cannot be used to calculate the incidence of an adverse event in the U.S. population.

If you would like to dive into the actual complaints available, there are data files you can download. If aspartame were such a danger, there should be at least a few references for aspartame, but I don’t find any. You will however find aspirin in there, which makes sense as it is a potent and effective drug[[5]].

He lists the various neurological disorders that aspartame apparently causes, but the majority of these are diseases and disorders for which the the medical community does not have a known cause or cure. So there is no way to definitively say “aspartame did not cause this.” However, aspartame most definitely is not in the running by any established or credible research agency into any of these diseases. Tollefson and Barnard did an analysis in 1992 of the 900 or so claims available at the time. They only looked into seizure related ones and found that the data “did not support the claim” of a linkage to seizures and aspartame consumption (Tollefson [[6]]). A more overarching review was done by the CDC, and also found no reason to suspect a “widespread public health hazard” (but cautioned that were a small number that could be attributable to aspartame) (Bradstock 1986 [[7]]).

Mercola makes another remarkable claim:

Unfortunately, aspartame toxicity is not well-known by doctors, despite its frequency. Diagnosis is also hampered by the fact that it mimics several other common health conditions, such as [Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Chronic fatigue syndrome .. Birth defects..]

In one statement, Mercola discounts the medical community at large’s ability to diagnose and recognize illnes and suggests and inability to recognize “aspartame toxicity”. This is a striking statement to make about the medical community. MDs (Dr. Mercola is a DO) are going to try their hardest to determine what causes ailments of their patients. If aspartame were a major concern, they would be aware of it.

This section based its claims on the idea of a massive wealth of documented evidence of side effects. This evidence was not provided. That is not to say that the FDA does not receive complaints about aspartame (probably more so in the past shortly after it was approved). But the available data do not indicate that the complaints have continued, nor is it recognized as being any sort of potential danger by the FDA or the CDC.

Diet Food and Drinks “Cause” Weight Problems?

Mercola then moves onto the claim that low-calorie drinks actually lead to obesity and weight gain. He again makes what looks to be a reference to prove his claim, but it is in fact another link to one of his own articles on mercola.com (which would be fine, except that it does not make it clear). Following the link, he references a study by Purdue University researchers published in Behavioral Neuroscience. In the study they tested whether or not rats would increase their calorie intake when a sweet taste was disconnected from actual energy content of the food (via non-nutritive sweeteners). They found that the results suggested the possibility that people could have increased obseity via those means (Swithers [[8]]).

We at last have a situation where Mercola has (indirectly) cited an actual study to back his claims. However it represents a single study done on rats in a slightly contrived situation. A later systematic review of the larger body of research in humans (as well as rats) have found that in humans, non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) do not generally seem to lead to increased energy intake due to confusing signals (emphasis mine) (Mattes [[9]]):

Thus, short-term trials of NNS consumption provide mixed evidence supporting reduced energy intake, whereas longer-term trials consistently indicate that the use of NNS results in incomplete compensation and slightly lower energy intakes. The latter studies are arguably the more nutritionally relevant.”

The authors response to that specific rat study:

In one set of studies [Purdue]…It is unclear whether these findings can be extrapolated to humans who eat a more varied diet and when nonnutritively sweetened foods are ingested concurrently with high-energy foods (eg, diet soda with a hamburger, nonnutritively sweetened coffee with pie). Under such conditions, associative learning would be considerably more complicated and subtle. …

Other recent evidence indicates that learning does occur in humans, but is counter to predictions from the animal studies (153)…In short-term tests, participants failed to report increased appetite or energy intake in response to consumption of NNS, whereas nonusers of NNS reported heightened appetite and energy intake after such stimulation. These findings indicate inconsistent exposure to NNS (paired or not paired with energy) from beverages results in blunted responses to their consumption and no elevation in risk of weight gain..The implications of chronic, widespread use of NNS on taste-energy associations and their influence on appetite and feeding are questions open to study.

So based on a larger body of evidence, it seems that for users who do not frequently consume diet content, their senses won’t quite be used to the disconnect between the sweet signal and calorie content. However, it does not seem to actually lead to additional weight gain. Mercola did provide some evidence here, but it appears to be outweighed by a larger volume of studies directly relevant to humans though as always “more studies are needed.”

It get worse?

In the next section, Mercola continues about the apparent dangers of aspartame, which he has written a book about and encourages readers to get for their “loved ones”. He also restates that about two-thirds of side effects being neurological in nature, when more accurately it would be two-thirds (or whatever the figure might be) of claimed side effects. There are a couple of paragraphs discussing potential chemical reactions from aspartame that might lead to side effects in the brain. However the theories are un-sourced despite the specificity of the claims. Mercola mentions specifically migraine headaches and brain tumors.

While there were some early very small studies that seemed to link aspartame and migraines (Koehler 1987[[10]]), larger controlled studies found aspartame no more likely to lead to migraines than placebo, including in those who already believed they had aspartame-caused headaches (Shiffman 1987[[11]], Garriga 1991[[12]]).

As for brain tumors, it is likely that what Mercola has in mind is an infamous (and heavily criticised) data analysis performed by JW Olney (Olney 1996[[13]]). The study purported to demonstrate a marked increase in the incidence of brain tumors in the years following the approval of aspartame. The analysis has been criticised for choosing the years in such a way that the increase would seem to coincide with the approval, when in fact the increase started before aspartame was introduced, and has declined since (Butchko 2001[[14]]). Olney did not actually compare those who consumed aspartame with those who did not. A case-control study printed in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute was unable to reproduce any relationship between brain tumors (in children, who would be more sensitive) and aspartame (Gurney 1997[[15]]). It seems unlikely that the FDA would have kept aspartame on the market if there was any credible link between it and tumors, and presumably the Journal of the National Cancer Institute would not be pointing out the lack of effects.

Given that there has been no credible causal link between aspartame and any actual disorder, it is interesting that the article continues: ”

One of the reasons for this side effect, researchers have discovered, is because the phenylalanine in aspartame dissociates from the ester bond.”

Again, no source is cited for this very specific claim, so it is hard to actually look into. Additionally, this is an argument about phenylalanine (a component of aspartame), not aspartame. Any relationship would need to be identified with the whole, not its parts. Before attempting to identify the causes of “aspartame toxicity”, it would seem prudent to first demonstrate that aspartame toxicity actually exists.

Mercola then moves on to the idea of “excitotoxins”: “The aspartic acid in aspartame is a well-documented excitotoxin. Excitotoxins are usually amino acids, such as glutamate and aspartate. These special amino acids cause particular brain cells to become excessively excited, to the point that they die.”

Note again that this is referring to specific components of aspartame, not the whole. In any case, if you perform Google search for “excitotoxin”, you won’t find results that suggest that this is a mainstream idea within the medical community. While excitotoxity may be a valid idea, it does really seem to be appropriate to link it to aspartame. Excitotoxity seems to be mainly used to claim harmful effects of MSG (via glutamate). The two main researchers in the area are John Olney (who coined the term) and Russell Blaylock. Searches on those names (especially Blaylock) turns up interesting results which, to me, do not put them into the mainstream.

Dr. Mercola continues…

Excitotoxins can also cause a loss of brain synapses and connecting fibers. A review conducted in 2008 by scientists from the University of Pretoria and the University of Limpopo found that consuming a lot of aspartame may inhibit the ability of enzymes in your brain to function normally, and may lead to neurodegeneration.

According to the researchers, consuming a lot of aspartame can disturb:

  • The metabolism of amino acids
  • Protein structure and metabolism
  • The integrity of nucleic acids
  • Neuronal function
  • Endocrine balances

The review cited brings up methanol and the other “suggested” cause of “certain mental disorders” (Humphries 2008). It is in a peer reviewed journal, and I am not qualified to analyze it (nor do I have access to the full text). That said, it is not frequently cited and one of the few citations is actually a printed response from the same journal: “The premise of the review, that the high-intensity sweetener aspartame is neurotoxic, ignores a very large scientific literature to the contrary“ (Fernstrom 2009[[16]]). Much of scientific credibility is based on the notion of having your results cited and reproduced. In the case of the Humphries study, there is already prior overwhelming evidence of no link and so their analysis is out of step.

Mercola throws in a reference to the common claim about the dangers of aspartame with regard to formaldehyde. I just recently addressed this specific issue by looking at the studies around this claim, and there seems no reason to be concerned (Dewald 2010[[17]]). Despite the scary sound of “formaldehyde”, it is actually a completely normal part of the daily metabolic process, being produced in the amount of about 1.5oz a day (Formaldehyde Council 2007 [[18]]). Additionally, fruits and juices lead to a significantly higher volume of formaldehyde (Magnuson [[19]]) than aspartame.

Dr. Mercola makes a quick foray into the claims that aspartame is a carcinogen. He links to his own article discussing a European Ramazzini Foundation study (Soffritti 2006 [[20]]) attempting to link aspartame to tumors in rats. The article mentions that the European Food agency and US FDA intended on reviewing the study. Well, they did review it (FDA 2007[[21]]) and found (European Commission 2002[[22]]) that it was not of sufficiently high quality or controls to demonstrate a cancer risk, and affirmed the continued safety of aspartame. So this is another case where the article does at least cite a source, but it is either outdated or heavily criticised by the scientific and health community.

As part of his discussion on the apparent carcinogenicity of aspartame, Dr. Mercola makes reference (via mercola.com) to a “compelling case study” of a woman named Victoria Inness-Brown, who did a study of rats and demonstrated it caused tumors. It might strike you that the body of research on this topic is so sparse that he is forced to reference private citizens doing “research” which is even difficult for experts to perform. I challenge the reader to actually locate this study. It certainly wasn’t published in a journal (peer-reviewed or not). The only references I can find about it are old links to it, which now point to a generic landing page featuring credit card ads. But even reading his description I am suspicious. What happened in the control rats? The previously mentioned discredited Soffriti is the only study that seems to have legitimately attempted to look into this matter, and it was clearly found wanting.

How does one cure oneself of the desire for sweets?

In the next section, things take a bit of weird turn. Dr. Mercola discusses “Nutritional Typing™”, which is an offshoot of “Metabolic Typing” (a quiz-based approach apparently designed to determine the diet “tailored” to your metabolism). He provides a reference, which is again a link to an article on mercola.com which seems to be a long form ad for a book written by Dr. Mercola on how to determine your “Nutritional Type”. It is also possible to become certified in this technique, for a sum of money.

Dr. Mercola also mentions his solution for removing food cravings altogether in the form of his Meridian Tapping Technique (MTT). If you followed his reference (to a mercola.com page), you will come across the following quote:

Some people are initially wary of these principles that EFT [the former name for MTT] is based on – the electromagnetic energy that flows through the body and regulates our health is only recently becoming recognized in the West. Others are initially taken aback by (and sometimes amused by) the EFT tapping and affirmation methodology, whose basics you will learn here.

There is absolutely no scientific basis for the concept of “meridians”. They, their purpose, or their effects have never been found. It would quite reasonable to be “wary” of those principles he espouses until such time as controlled studies have been done that actually detect meridians or their properties. Bringing up meridians brings to mind acupuncture and other alternative claims using “Qi” (the supposed “energy flow” or “vital energy” brought from traditional Chinese culture, and frequently used as explanation for non-scientific beliefs) for which there is no scientific basis and for which scientific studies can find no effect above that of a placebo (Madsen 2009 [[23]]).

By way of evidence of how MTT is popular among practicing doctors, Dr. Mercola points out doctors who who have started using his MTT technique. The list does not include MDs (or even DOs as far as I can tell). The list is actually made up of:

  • Natural Health Clinics
  • Naturopathic Physicians
  • Pain Therapists
  • Emotional Therapists

Dr. Mercola also sells books and DVDs available for purchase to be able to fully harness the power of EFT/MTT.

This section seemed to be clearly the least objective of the article. The majority of it was made up of Dr. Mercola’s pointing to products and services made available by him and his company. No references are made to whether or not the techniques are scientifically credible or valid. They might be, but he offers no evidence. By now things have veered away from claims about the safety of aspartame.

An “acceptable” alternative?

Considering the tone of the rest of the article, it was surprising that Dr. Mercola would actually endorse any artificial sweeteners. But he does at least approve of Stevia, because it is a “safe, natural alternative” sweetener from a plant.

Yes, Stevia is “natural”, but is has had quite a bit of controversy itself. It was only in December of 2008 that the FDA gave it the “Generally Recognized as Safe” label (Curry 2008 [[24]]). Stevia is still banned from usage in the European Union (Stevia Association [[25]]). Recommending Stevia appears to me to be part of the common “natural fallacy” of regarding any substance that is closer to its original form as being somehow better than things which are “artificial” (even if the synthetic substance is chemically identical). There is plenty to be found in nature that is unsafe — arsenic, hemlock, poison ivy are some quick examples. While Stevia may actually be safe (and is approved in the US), it seems that Dr. Mercola recommends it purely on the grounds of it being “natural” despite having much less of a clinical track record of safety. Long term traditional usage is not the same as evidence.

Conclusion

The most common response to this article may be personal anecdotes of those who believe they were/are adversely affected by aspartame. To those, I just ask that you carefully read the studies which have looked for evidence of the plausibility and occurrence of it, and found none. It is human nature to look for patterns, and aspartame is so prevalent that removing it from your diet is not an isolated situation. Making that change removes any number of other habits and substances. Only your doctor could really help you determine what is causing migraines, seizures, etc.

Dr. Mercola’s article unfairly attacks aspartame, an artificial sweetener recognized and affirmed as safe by the FDA and used daily by millions of people without ill effects. I felt it important to point out the inaccuracies in the claims (and call for evidence of others) because if consumers get the impression that common products (be it food additives, medicines or medical practices) are unsafe they may seek out alternative treatments which have not been found to be safe, or may even have been found to be harmful.


[1]Mercola, Joseph. Huffington Post, The. “America’s Deadliest Sweetener Betrays Millions, Then Hoodwinks You With Name Change.” July 6, 2010. Visited July 7, 2010.

[2]US Food and Drug Administration. FDA. “Dockets Management”. http://www.fda.gov/regulatoryinformation/dockets/default.htm. Updated 2/1/2010. Visited 7/15/2010.

[3]US Food and Drug Administration. “Potential Signals of Serious Risks/New Safety Information Identified by the Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS) between January – March 2010”. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm216272.htm. Visited 7/12/2010

[4]US Food And Drug Administration. “Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS).” http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm082196.htm. Visited 7/9/2010

[5]US Food And Drug Administration. “The Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS): Latest Quarterly Data Files”. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Surveillance/AdverseDrugEffects/ucm082193.htm. Visited 7/9/2010

[6]Tollefson L, Barnard RJ. An analysis of FDA passive surveillance reports of seizures associated with consumption of aspartame. J Am Diet Assoc. 1992 May;92(5):598-601.

[7]Bradstock MK, Serdula MK, Marks JS, Barnard RJ, Crane NT, Remington PL,
Trowbridge FL. Evaluation of reactions to food additives: the aspartame experience. Am J Clin Nutr. 1986 Mar;43(3):464-9. PubMed PMID: 3953484.

[8]Swithers, E., Davidson TL. A Role for Sweet Taste: Caloire Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation by Rats. Behavioral Neuroscience 2008, Vol. 122, No. 1, 161–173

[9]Mattes RD, Popkin BM. Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):1-14. Epub 2008 Dec 3. Review. PubMed PMID: 19056571

[10]Koehler SM, Glaros A. The effect of aspartame on migraine headache. Headache. 1988 Feb;28(1):10-4.

[11]Schiffman, Susan S., et al., 1987. “Aspartame and Susceptibility to Headache,” The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 317, No. 19, page 1181-1185.

[12]Garriga MM, Berkebile C, Metcalfe DD. A combined single-blind, double-blind,placebo-controlled study to determine the reproducibility of hypersensitivity reactions to aspartame. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1991 Apr;87(4):821-7.

[13]Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins L, Increasing Brain Tumor Rates: Is There a Link to Aspartame? Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology 1996;55(11);1115-1123.

[14]Butchko, Harriet, Frank Kotsonis, 1994. “Postmarketing Surveillance in the Food Industry: The Aspartame Case Study,” Nutritional Toxicology, edited by Frank Kotsonis, Maureen Mackey, and Jerry Hjelle, Raven Press, Ltd., New York, pages 235-249.

[15]Gurney JG, Pogoda JM. J Natl Cancer Inst. Aspartame consumption in relation to childhood brain tumor risk: results from a case-control study. 1997 Jul 16;89(14):1072-4.

[16]Fernstrom, JD. “Aspartame effects on the brain”. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 63, 698-699 (May 2009)

[17]Dewald, Joshua. What does the science say? “Aspartame and Formaldehyde (or not…)”. 6/13/2010

[18]Formaldehyde Council. “Formaldehyde: Facts and Background Information”. November 2007. Visited 7/16/2010. http://www.formaldehyde.org/_base/pdf/fact_sheets/11_01_07-FormadehydeFactsandBackgroundInformation.pdf

[19]Magnuson, B. “Straight facts on aspartame & health”. The Beverage Institute. http://www.thebeverageinstitute.com/healthcare_professionals/pdf/Aspartame_Magnunson.pdf. Visited 6/13/2010.

[20]Soffritti, M., Belpoggi F. et al. “First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats”. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 March; 114(3): 379–385.

[21]US Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Statement on European Aspartame Study”. CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety. April 20, 2007. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/FoodAdditives/ucm208580.htm. Accessed 6/13/2010

[22]European Commission Scientific Committee on Feed. “Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food:Update on the Safety of Aspartame”. December 4, 2002. http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scf/out155_en.pdf. Accessed 6/13/2010.

[23]Madsen MV, Gøtzsche PC, Hróbjartsson A. Acupuncture treatment for pain:systematic review of randomised clinical trials with acupuncture, placebo

acupuncture, and no acupuncture groups. BMJ. 2009 Jan 27;338:a3115.

[24]Curry, L. CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety. “Agency Response Letter GRAS Notice No. GRN 000253”. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/GenerallyRecognizedasSafeGRAS/GRASListings/ucm154989.htm. December 17, 2008. Visited 7/12/2010.

[25]European Stevia Association. “Status in the EU”. http://www.eustas.org/engl/eu_status_engl.htm. Visited 7/13/2010

Aspartame and Formaldehyde (or not…)

A possibly easier to read version of this better for pinting is available at http://40two.org/Aspartame_Formaldehyde.pdf

There is also a separate entry which is a response to a Joe Mercola article posted to the Huffington Post which repeated some of the claims refuted here, as well as some additional ones.

Introduction

Aspartame, more commonly known as NutraSweet, is frequently claimed to have any number of ill effects in the body. This article will focus on the claim that aspartame contains formaldehyde, leading to toxic effects in the body (such as headaches), and will also touch on the claim that it is a carcinogen (cancer causing agent). There are additionally claims that aspartame leads to seizures, but this is a much less popular one (perhaps because the NutraSweet acknowledges the danger in the small amount of PKU sufferers for which it would affect). Hopefully the reader will be convinced it is true that one of the by-products of the breakdown of aspartame is formaldehyde, this does not represent any actual health hazard.

Just what is aspartame?

Aspartame is a low-caloric sweetener (i.e. alternative to sugar). Wikipedia describes aspartame as1

a methyl ester of the dipeptide of the natural amino acids L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. Under strongly acidic or alkaline conditions, aspartame may generate methanol by hydrolysis. Under more severe conditions, the peptide bonds are also hydrolyzed, resulting in the free amino acids

Claims and Discussion

A common claim is that aspartame contains formaldehyde which builds up in the body and creates all manner of ills. Others have claimed that it is a carcinogen (cancer causing agent) despite there being no studies that really demonstrate that.
Mark D. Gold and Ralph Walton are two of the more prolific writers on this topic out there. Gold’s website has a section title “Formaldehyde Poisoning from Aspartame“, which has the following:

In 1997 there was an increase in aspartame users reporting severe toxicity reactions and damage such as seizures, eye damage and vision loss, confusion, severe migraines, tremors, depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, etc. In the same years, Ralph Walton, MD, Chairman, The Center for Behavioral Medicine showed that the only studies which didn’t find problems with aspartame where those funded by the manufacturer (Monsanto).

Given the agreement amongst independent scientists about the toxicity of aspartame, the only question was whether the formaldehyde exposure from aspartame caused the toxicity. That question has now been largely answered because of research in the late 1990s.
The following facts shown by recent scientific research:

  1. Aspartame (nutrasweet) breaks down into methanol (wood alcohol).
  2. Methanol quickly converts to formadehyde in the body.
  3. Formaldehyde causes gradual and eventually severe damage to the neurological system, immune system and causes permanent genetic damage at extremely low doses.
  4. Methanol from alcoholic beverages and from fruit and juices does not convert to formaldehyde and cause damage because there are protective chemicals in these traditionally ingested beverages.
  5. The most recent independent research in Europe demonstrates that ingestion of small amounts of aspartame leads to the accumulation of significant levels of formaldehyde (bound to protein) in organs (liver, kidneys, brain) and tissues.
  6. Excitotoxic amino acids such as the one which is immediately released from aspartame likely increases the damage caused by the formaldehyde.

What the science says

While it is true that aspartame does break down into methanol then formaldehyde, it actually happens much more in fruit juices (about 2x in a banana, or 6x in an 8oz glass of tomato juice2). Gold attempts to address this in item 4, but simply waves his hand as an explanation for why it can be ignored. The fact is that it simply is not enough to do anything and your body easily disposes of it.
The above quoted article has one of the more untrue statements you can find. Not only do “non-independent” researchers find no problems, “independent” ones did not either. Instead what you will find are people making hypothetical claims which are not backed by anything. Gold and Walton are excellent at taking a statement by one scientist and using it as an explanation for why aspartame has been found to be bad, when in fact it has not. In other words, they start with the premise that aspartame is harmful then look for explanations for why it might be.

The Walton set of research is frequently cited, but let’s break it down a bit. It actually was already rebutted here:

Dr Walton’s paper reveals that of the 92 pieces of “research,” 85 (not 84) are said to identify an adverse reaction to aspartame. However, of the 85:

  • Ten studies actually involve aspartate and not aspartame. Aspartate is the salt of aspartic acid. Aspartic acid is a very common component of food. These studies are therefore irrelevant to aspartame safety.
  • 18 of the studies do not actually draw any negative conclusions about aspartame.
  • Five are review articles, not peer-reviewed studies.
  • Two are “brief reports” or “case reports”, not peer-reviewed studies.
  • Five are anecdotes, based on the writers’ observations of patients.
  • 11 are conference proceedings, which are not peer-reviewed studies.
  • 19 are letters to various medical journals.
  • Three are different reports of the same study.
  • Two are exact duplicates of other documents appearing in the list.
  • Three are different reports of the same allegations.

Overwhelming indeed. My own analysis is available here. What I found entertaining is how many of them (18 or 19) don’t even find anything negative… yet Walton, either brazenly or unknowingly, still includes them in his number. All in all, Walton is quite sloppy.
The only reasonable study (which I believe is also the one being referenced in #5 above), but still frequently questioned is:

  1. Trocho, C., et al., 1998. “Formaldehyde Derived From Dietary Aspartame Vinds(sic) to Tissue Components in vivo,” Life Sciences, Vol. 63, No. 5, pp. 337+, 1998
Note the misspelling as “Vinds”… when it should be “Binds”. It’s generally cited as “Vinds” though.. a good indication that most of the sites claiming to do research are simply copy/pasting from this one guy.

…The administration of labelled aspartame to a group of cirrhotic rats resulted in comparable label retention by tissue components, which suggests that liver function (or its defect) has little effect on formaldehyde formation from aspartame and binding to biological components. The chronic treatment of a series of rats with 200 mg/kg of non-labelled aspartame during 10 days resulted in the accumulation of even more label when given the radioactive bolus, suggesting that the amount of formaldehyde adducts coming from aspartame in tissue proteins and nucleic acids may be cumulative. It is concluded that aspartame consumption may constitute a hazard because of its contribution to the formation of formaldehyde adducts.

One of the primary responses is from Tephyl, quoted by Butchko et al3:

However, according to Tephly (1999), the dose of aspartame used in the study (20 mg/kg body wt=2mg of methanol/kg body wt) would not yield blood methanol concentrations outside control values. Further, the administration of aspartame at 200 mg/kg body wt (equal to that in a single bolus of about 25 liters of beverage sweetened 100% with aspartame) to adult humans results in no detectable increase in blood formate concentrations (Stegink et al., 1981). Administration of [14C]methanol itself at 3000 mg/kg body wt to monkeys produces no detectable [14C]formaldehyde in body fluids and tissues (McMartin et al., 1979)…The lack of formaldehyde accumulation at very high doses of methanol question considerably the conclusion that formaldehyde adducts are forming from low doses of methanol (derived from high doses aspartame). Thus, Tephly (1999) concluded, “the normal flux of one-carbon moieties whether derived from pectin, aspartame, or fruit juices is a physiologic phenomenon and not a toxic event.”

To break it down:
  1. Formaldehyde build-up has not in fact been detected even when 200mg/kg is given to humans (which is a huge amount)
  2. Even when large does of direct methanol (which is what breaks down into formaldehyde) were given to monkeys, it did not produce formaldehyde build-up
  3. There are other explanations for the labelled-carbon staying in the body, aside from formaldehyde build-up which will also occur with other substances (such as fruit pectin).
Going back to the original comments about Gold and Walton, we have a situation of someone trying to explain the build-up for formaldehyde, when no other scientists are able to actually see a build-up in the first place. Instead it seems that the labelled molecules are making their way through the basic chemistry of the process, but the full molecule is not.

Systematic Reviews

Let’s continue one with some of the large overviews which discuss the overall safety of aspartame in the broader scope, and occasionally look at studies purporting to show harm.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Both the FDA and the European Commission have determined that aspartame is safe. However they kicked off additional reviews in response to a study done by the European Ramazzini Foundation (linked here4) that claimed to demonstrate that aspartame was a carcinogen. The European review found this to not at all be supported by the data. The US FDA decided to do its own separate review of the study and had similar findings5:

FDA has completed its review concerning the long-term carcinogenicity study of aspartame entitled, “Long-Term Carcinogenicity Bioassays to Evaluate the Potential Biological Effects, in Particular Carcinogenic, of Aspartame Administered in Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats,” conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF), located in Bologna, Italy. FDA reviewed the study data made available to them by ERF and finds that it does not support ERF’s conclusion that aspartame is a carcinogen. Additionally, these data do not provide evidence to alter FDA’s conclusion that the use of aspartame is safe.

….

Considering results from the large number of studies on aspartame’s safety, including five previously conducted negative chronic carcinogenicity studies, a recently reported large epidemiology study with negative associations between the use of aspartame and the occurrence of tumors, and negative findings from a series of three transgenic mouse assays, FDA finds no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food.

Kind of interesting that the folks doing the study were not willing to actually submit it to a full review. If you take a look at the study’s tables (here and here), the bit that stands out to me is the lack of a consistent dose-response effect as you get higher doses of aspartame. They had to get up to an insane amount (2500mg/kg… or the equivalent of 500mg/kg for humans) to get a statistically significant effect.

European Commission – Scientific Committee on Food

For reasons unknown, people against Aspartame link to to the “European Commission updates their opinion” study as if the EC had determined that aspartame was now unsafe. The update was kicked off because of the Ramazzini Foundation study claiming carcinogenity. If you actually read the update, it is quite clear that they very much still find it to be safe.

Some important bits from the text (in all cases emphasis is my own)6:

The estimates of intake by mean and high level consumers are fairly consistent between European countries even though slightly different approaches were used. High level consumers, both adults and children, are unlikely to exceed the ADI of 40 mg/kg bw for aspartame. Special groups such as diabetics that are likely to be high consumers of foods containing aspartame are also well below the ADI. Therefore, from the available data it appears that no group is likely to exceed the ADI for aspartame on a regular basis.

All this is really saying is that the actual amount that most people would consume is well below the worldwide maximum level allowed (40-50 mg/kg).

If you view the table in the document, you can see that the mean is in the 2-3mg/kg bw/d, with high levels around 6-10.

Animal studies have demonstrated that the metabolic breakdown products of aspartame are absorbed and metabolised similarly whether they are given alone or derived from aspartame. The extensive presystemic metabolism of aspartame results in little or no parent compound reaching the general circulation.

This is in alignment to the Butchko/Tepyhl comments above: aspartame by-products (methanol, then formaldehyde) to not make it into the bloodstream.

And the key parts:

The aspartate component is rapidly metabolised and thus the plasma aspartate concentrations are not significantly elevated following aspartame doses of 34 to 50 mg/kg bw, whereas plasma Phe concentrations may increase depending on dose (Stegink, 1984). Methanol is also rapidly metabolised and blood levels are usually not detectable unless large bolus doses of aspartame (>50 mg/kg bw) are administered.

Trocho is discussed:

…Besides the fact that aspartame at high doses has never induced liver cancer in rats, Trocho’s studies did not identify the radioactivity found in the proteins and DNA. Consequently, the formation of adducts of formaldehyde on the proteins and nucleic acids from aspartame, in vivo, remains to be proved

French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA)

The AFSSA published its own systematic review (here hosted on the UK Food standards agency… FDA equivalent). They go over much of the same material as those above. On the subject of the aspartame leading to headaches, they have to say7:

Another study…was also a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled cross-over trial, concluded that aspartame was no more likely than placebo to trigger headaches (Schiffman et al., 1987). This study consisted of 40 subjects who complained of aspartame-related headachesWhile 35% of subjects developed headaches while on aspartame, 45% developed headaches while on placebo.

I found it interesting that the Shiffman study actually used people who were already pre-disposed to believe that they got headaches from aspartame, and even then it could not be demonstrated.

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is there is not a convincing body of evidence (or none at all depending on how you look at it) to indicate that there is any reason to be concerned with normal intake of foods and beverages containing aspartame–unless you somehow manage to consume 12 liters of soda in a single sitting, in which case you have worse things to worry about. If there is interest, another article could focus on the supposed “excitotoxin” aspects of aspartame and some of the other proposed effects.The problem with these claims is that there is a large amount of urban myth around aspartame which do not have any studies (or reproduced studies) to back them up. They are essentially made up from whole cloth, which actually makes them more difficult to disprove. If there are specific studies that you have found convincing, then they could serve as a new jumping off point for another essay. Until then, there seems no reason to not consume diet beverages and other “light” foods.
UPDATE July 15, 2012 – Corrected external link to rebuttal of Walton’s “independent” aspartame studies

References
1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame – Wikipedia page on aspartame. Used for general overview. Visited 3/5/2010

2 Magnuson, B. “Straight facts on aspartame & health”. The Beverage Institute. http://www.thebeverageinstitute.com/healthcare_professionals/pdf/Aspartame_Magnunson.pdf. Visited 6/13/2010. The actual numbers quoted come from the peer-reviewed paper by the same author, but I was unable to find a working full text link.

3 Butchko, HH., Stargel, WW., Comer, CP., Mayhew, DA. “Aspartame: Review of Safety”. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 35, S1–S93 (2002)

4 Soffritti, M., Belpoggi F. et al. “First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats”. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 March; 114(3): 379–385.

5 US Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Statement on European Aspartame Study”. CFSAN/Office of Food Additive Safety. April 20, 2007. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/FoodAdditives/ucm208580.htm. Accessed 6/13/2010

6 European Commission Scientific Committee on Feed. “Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food:Update on the Safety of Aspartame”. December 4, 2002. http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scf/out155_en.pdf. Accessed 6/13/2010.

7 French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA). “Opinion on a possible link between the exposition to aspartame and the incidence of brain tumours in humans”. May 7, 2002. http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/afssaeng.pdf. Accessed 6/13/2010.

Water Bottles and Cancer

A printable and easier to read version can be found at:

http://40two.org/What_does_the_science_say_Water_Bottles.pdf

Introduction

Impetus

I thought it would be interested to look into the oft-quoted idea that water bottles are not reusable and that if you do anything other than drink from them and toss them, that you would get cancer. I personally had not heard many of the claims and in even looking them up, the first few results were usually previous debunkings. This almost made be stop by I figured for my few readers I may as well summarize some of the results. Plus I thought it would be nice to look into something where there was nobody I could offend, which is nice. This is part of an ongoing series that has included energy drinks and water intake requirements.

A comment-enabled version can be found on my blog at:

Note: BPA will be covered in another essay, as the FDA and CDC are currently awaiting for new studies to be completed. They were supposed to report back Nov 30, but this has come and gone. Currently the official position is that BPA as it is currently used is safe.

Summary

Your water bottle is not going to kill you. The best thing to do any time you hear that some every day item is going to kill you is to head on over to Snopes. Most stories like this are quickly found to be based on complete fabrications. This particular one happens to have very minute amounts of “real” science (e.g. dioxins and DEHA do exist and DEHA is in microwave-safe plastics) but that actual effects are in no way realistic. Additionally, DEHA is not actually carcinogenic as far as anyone can tell. Whether or not you personally believe in any claim of this sort, please refrain from passing it on before you have validated that it is credible.

Disclaimer

I am not a doctor or scientist, no words of mine should be construed as medical advice. My intent is only to find the best available scientific or medical evidence for or against claims that comes for authoritative sources. If you have credible studies that would contradict them, please let me know.

Claims

Claim 1: Leaving a bottle of water in the car can make it cancerous

Personally I had never really heard about this one, but I did some searching and it looks to be a popular one, having originated with an email hoax purporting to come from “Johns Hopkins” and claiming that leaving a water bottle in the car can cause it to leak “dioxins”. Occasionally the email will include the claim that Sheryl Crow was on Ellen to warn others about this happening to her.

Sample

From one blog that has pasted the email (and claims it came from a breast cancer doctor): [1]

Cancer Update from Johns-Hopkins

Bottled water in your car isvery dangerous!

On the Ellen show, Sheryl Crow said this is what caused her breast cancer. It has been identified as the most common cause of the high levels of dioxin in breast cancer tissue.

Sheryl Crow’s oncologist told her:

women should not drink bottled water that has been left in a car.The heat reacts with the chemicals in the plastic of the bottle which releases dioxin into the water. Dioxin is a toxin increasingly found in breast cancer tissue. So please be careful and do not drink bottled water that has been left in a car. Pass this on to all the women in your life.

What the science says

Let’s get the Sheryl Crow part of it out of the way right away. On her official site she posted real information about dioxins that specifically goes against the claim (i.e. she acknowledges that it is a hoax). It can currently be found on page 23 of her “news items” (the items are chronological, and this item is from October of 2006). It is a news item called “What You Need to Know About Dioxins (Updated with Notes from Gregg Dempsey”. In case that link doesn’t get you there, an Internet Archive version exists of her older site which had the same news item. She actually ends up quoting from some of the same stuff that will come below.
Regardless, I think it should be stressed as always that celebrities should not be where you get your science or medical information from. This also goes for the ones I agree with.

The Internet is flooded with messages warning against freezing water in plastic bottles or cooking with plastics in the microwave oven. These messages, frequently titled “Johns Hopkins Cancer News” or “Johns Hopkins Cancer Update,” are falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins and we do not endorse their content.

Freezing water does not cause the release of chemicals from plastic bottles.

Additionally, they have another response that goes into some more detail[3]:

Question: What do you make of this recent email warning that claims dioxins can be released by freezing water in plastic bottles?

Answer: No. This is an urban legend. There are no dioxins in plastics. In addition, freezing actually works against the release of chemicals. Chemicals do not diffuse as readily in cold temperatures, which would limit chemical release if there were dioxins in plastic, and we don’t think there are.

The FDA has a page about dioxins. You are exposed to it quite often. Their page makes absolutely no mention of plastic bottles.

Technically some studies have shown that high levels of exposure could potentially cause cancer[4]:

G2. Why are people concerned about dioxins?

One of the main concerns over health effects from dioxins is the risk of cancer in adults. Several studies suggest that workers exposed to high levels of dioxins at their workplace over many years have an increased risk of cancer. Animal studies have also shown an increased risk of cancer from long-term exposure to dioxins.

G4. How might I be exposed to dioxins?

Most of the population has low-level exposure to dioxins. Although dioxins are environmental contaminants, most dioxin exposure occurs through the diet, with over 95% coming through dietary intake of animal fats (see also F3 and F4). Small amounts of exposure occur from breathing air containing trace amounts of dioxins on particles and in vapor form, from inadvertent ingestion of soil containing dioxins, and from absorption through the skin contacting air, soil, or water containing minute levels of dioxins.

But again it has absolutely nothing to do with plastic bottles (or even, as far as I know, any plastics you would use regularly).

Summary

It is true that dioxins could be potentially hazardous, but it does not seem that the average person would be getting anywhere near the exposure that could be harmful. And it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with water bottles.

Claim 2: Heating of Freezing Water Bottles Causes them to Leach Chemicals such as DEHA

Sample

As a seventh grade student, Claire Nelson learned that DEHA, di(ethylhexyl)adepate, considered a carcinogen, is found in plastic wrap. She also learned that the FDA had never studied the effect of microwave cooking on plastic-wrapped food. Claire began to wonder: “Can cancer-causing particles seep into food covered with household plastic wrap while it is being microwaved?”

Three years later, with encouragement from her high school science teacher, Claire set out to test what the FDA had not. Although she had an idea for studying the effect of microwave radiation on plastic-wrapped food, she did not have the equipment. Eventually, Jon Wilkes at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas, agreed to help her. The research center, which is affiliated with the FDA, let her use its facilities to perform her experiments, which involved microwaving plastic wrap in virgin olive oil. Claire tested four different plastic wraps and “found not just the carcinogens but also xenoestrogen was migrating [into the oil]….” Xenoestrogens are linked to low sperm counts in men and to breast cancer in women.

And,

On Channel 2 (Huntsville, AL) this morning they had a Dr. Edward Fujimoto from Castle Hospital on the program. He is the manager of the Wellness Program at the hospital. He was talking about dioxins and how bad they are for us. He said that we should not be heating our food in the microwave using plastic containers. This applies to foods that contain fat. He said that the combination of fat, high heat and plastics releases dioxins into the food and ultimately into the cells of the body. Dioxins are carcinogens and highly toxic to the cells of our bodies.

What the Science Says

Others have done better research on this hoax (actually for both parts), a good one being at http://www.spysoftball.com/microwave_hoax.htm. As usual, Snopes is a good source on this one (http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cookplastic.asp). Another one to take a look at http://www.hoax-slayer.com/plastic-cancer-link-hoax.html
I actually couldn’t put it better than Snopes:

It’s a pretty good assumption that if using plastic containers in microwaves posed a significant risk of cancer, you’d be hearing it somewhere other than an e-mail forward of an anomymous summary of a morning news spot on a Hawaiin television station

Replace the item and the danger, and you have a large percentage of all the supposed health hazards out there from normal household items.. which are also not backed by any actual science.
From (arguably potentially biased) site plasticsinfo.org[5]:

The student’s thesis incorrectly identifies di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA), a plastics additive, as a human carcinogen. DEHA is neither regulated nor classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the National Toxicology Program or the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the leading authorities on carcinogenic substances.

In 1991, on the basis of very limited data, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified DEHA as a “possible human carcinogen.” However, in 1995, EPA again evaluated the science and concluded that “…overall, the evidence is too limited to establish that DEHA is likely to cause cancer.”

Further, DEHA is not inherent in PET as a raw material, byproduct or decomposition product. DEHA is a common plasticizer that is used in innumerable plastic items, many of which are found in the laboratory. For this reason, the student’s detection of DEHA is likely to have been the result of inadvertent lab contamination. This is supported by the fact that DEHA was detected infrequently (approximately 6% of the samples) and randomly, meaning that the frequency of detection bore no relationship to the test conditions.

Moreover, DEHA has been cleared by FDA for food-contact applications and would not pose a health risk even if it were present.

Finally, in June 2003, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research conducted a scientific study of migration in new and reused plastic water bottles from three countries. The Swiss study did not find DEHA at concentrations significantly above the background levels detected in distilled water, indicating DEHA was unlikely to have migrated from the bottles. The study concluded that the levels of DEHA were distinctly below the World Health Organization guidelines for safe drinking water.

Or if you don’t trust “plasticsinfo.org”, how about the American Cancer Society[6].

These emails are apparently based on a student’s college thesis. In fact, DEHA is not inherent in the plastic used to make these bottles, and even if it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says DEHA “cannot reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer, teratogenic effects, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, gene mutations, liver, kidney, reproductive, or developmental toxicity or other serious or irreversible chronic health effects.” Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), says diethylhexyl adipate “is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.”

The IARC study that both reference can be found online here. The above have already quoted it, so the link is just for reference.

Or how about the EPA (you will note that they make no mention of water bottles)[7]:

What is di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate?

Di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate is a light-colored, oily liquid with an aromatic odor.

What are di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate’s health effects?

Some people who drink water containing di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate well in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for many years could experience toxic effects such as weight loss, liver enlargement, or possible reproductive difficulties.

How does di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate get into my drinking water?

The major source of di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate in drinking water is discharge from chemical factories.

Summary

The FDA, EPA, and American Cancer Society are well aware of DEHA,water bottles and plastics. They make absolutely no claims about them being carcinogenic when frozen or heated. In fact they make sure to point that these claims are specifically untrue.

Claim 3: Water bottles are unsafe for re-use because of bacteria

Summary

Well, yeah. You should re-use any container without rinsing it with soap and water. Why would water bottles be any different. Claiming that water bottles are any different means that as soon as you open a bottle of water you must throw it away after the first drink if you don’t finish it. Does that make any sense?

Further References

Not surprisingly, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid covered this already (in 2007 no less) at: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4060

It has also been covered on pretty much every email-hoax debunking site.

notes

1 Smith-Batchen, Lisa. “Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins”. April 11, 2009. http://lisasmithbatchen.blogspot.com/2009/04/cancer-update-from-johns-hopkins.html

2 Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. http://www.jhsph.edu/dioxins

3 http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/articles/halden_dioxins2.html

4 Food and Drug Administration. “Questions and Answers about Dioxins”. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodContaminantsAdulteration/ChemicalContaminants/DioxinsPCBs/ucm077524.htm#g4 Visited 2009/12/06

5 American Chemistry Council. “FAQs: The Safety of Plastic Beverage Bottles”. http://www.plasticsinfo.org/s_plasticsinfo/sec_level2_faq.asp?CID=705&DID=2839#6 Visited 12/6/2009

6 American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/med/content/med_6_1x_reusing_plastic_water_bottles.asp?sitearea=med

7 Environmental Protection Agency. “Basic Information about Di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate in Drinking Water”. http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/contaminants/basicinformation/di-2-ethylhexyl-adipate.html