How to count on food

We get on the sweet side of things with the E9xx series that you see on food la­bels, in­clud­ing that old, un­re­solved sweet mys­tery, as­par­tame.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - Star2@thes­

THIS part begins with a lit­tle re­view of a long-run­ning mys­tery story – it is ap­par­ently still un­re­solved, with strong opin­ions on both sides about the guilt or in­no­cence of a very com­mon syn­thetic ad­di­tive used in count­less food prod­ucts.

It is al­most cer­tain that you would have in­gested this com­pound at some point in your life, and pos­si­bly you are even in­gest­ing it ev­ery day with­out even know­ing about it.

The com­pound is the ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­ener, E951 (as­par­tame) – and de­spite its ubiq­uity, it is prob­a­bly even more cu­ri­ous than you might think.

Food reg­u­la­tors in the United States and the Euro­pean Union as­sert that as­par­tame is a non­toxic com­pound – so how come there is so much con­tro­versy?

Well, there have been many odd events in the life of this com­pound (de­vel­oped by G. D. Searle & Co) since it first gained ap­proval in 1974 for use as a sweet­ener ad­di­tive by the Food & Drugs Agency (FDA) in the United States.

How­ever, this ap­proval was re­scinded late in 1975 due to highly ques­tion­able is­sues with the safety stud­ies sub­mit­ted by G. D. Searle & Co.

In May 1981, three out of six sci­en­tists at the FDA ad­vised against ap­prov­ing as­par­tame, but in July the same year, the FDA com­mis­sioner ig­nored their con­cerns and uni­lat­er­ally approved as­par­tame for use in dry foods.

This was fol­lowed by ap­proval in July 1983 for as­par­tame use in car­bon­ated drinks and syrups.

Even af­ter ap­proval, var­i­ous steps were taken to es­tab­lish the tox­i­c­ity of as­par­tame, cul­mi­nat­ing in the FDA re­leas­ing a list in 1992 of over 8,000 com­plaints cat­e­gorised by var­i­ous re­ported symp­toms.

Still, the ad­vice was that as­par­tame is safe, ex­cept for peo­ple with phenylke­tonuria (a rare con­di­tion where suf­fer­ers can­not metabolise phenyl­ala­nine).

Then var­i­ous Euro­pean stud­ies ap­peared to pro­vide con­tra­dic­tory ev­i­dence. Tsakiris (2005) re­ported neu­ro­log­i­cal is­sues with as­par­tame con­sump­tion by hu­mans within the con­sump­tion lim­its rec­om­mended by the FDA – mostly it was re­lated to learn­ing im­pair­ment and mem­ory loss.

Even ear­lier, a study by Tro­cho (aka Barcelona Study, 1998) had im­pli­cated as­par­tame in both or­gan and brain dam­age in test rats.

But pos­si­bly the most wor­ry­ing re­ports were the 2005 Sof­fritti Study which claimed that as­par­tame is a car­cino­gen in test rats – and this claim was sub­se­quently sup­ported by an­other study by Ra­mazz­ini in 2007. As­par­tame is in some of the most widely con­sumed pro­cessed food, and is quite hard to avoid. — Tony Web­ster via Visu­ (Right) The last of the E9xx series is E999 (quil­laia ex­tract), used as a foam­ing agent to im­prove bub­bles in beer and fizzy drinks. — Theo Xiong via Visu­

Fake news

The case against as­par­tame was re­ally not helped by a fake let­ter cir­cu­lated in 1999 by a sup­posed “Nancy Markle” which claimed that the com­pound was re­spon­si­ble for mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, sys­temic lu­pus, and methanol tox­i­c­ity, caus­ing “blind­ness, spasms, shoot­ing pains, seizures, headaches, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, mem­ory loss, birth de­fects and death”. The false claims were eas­ily dis­proved and led to jus­ti­fi­able ac­cu­sa­tions of a smear cam­paign against as­par­tame.

Re­gard­less of the politics, the facts are quite sim­ple. As­par­tame is man­u­fac­tured us­ing the waste by-prod­ucts of ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied Escherichia coli bac­te­ria breed­ing in warm tanks of car­bo­hy­drates, ni­tro­gen com­pounds and other nu­tri­ents – how­ever, med­i­cal in­sulin is also pro­duced in a sim­i­lar man­ner so this is not nec­es­sar­ily con­tentious.

When in­gested, as­par­tame de­com­poses into two amino acids (40% as­par­tic acid and 50% phenyl­ala­nine) and 10% methanol. As­par­tic acid can be man­u­fac­tured by the body it­self but diet is the only source of phenyl­ala­nine (which is used as a pre­cur­sor for dopamine, nor­ep­i­neph­rine and ep­i­neph­rine). Methanol is a toxic com­pound and is bro­ken down first in the liver into formalde­hyde (also toxic), and then into formic acid (yet an­other toxic com­pound) be­fore fi­nally being detox­i­fied into car­bon diox­ide.

Be­fore you worry too much, methanol is a very com­mon com­pound also found in fruits, veg­eta­bles, beers, et cetera – so this com­pound is not nec­es­sar­ily sub­stan­tially con­tentious ei­ther, es­pe­cially as the over­all methanol load from nor­mal con­sump­tion of as­par­tame is quite low.

Af­fect­ing the brain?

What is cu­ri­ous is that there is some ev­i­dence that both di­etary as­par­tic acid and phenyl­ala­nine can cross the Blood-Brain Bar­rier (BBB), and can there­fore af­fect the brain.

The prob­lem is that nor­mal di­ets with com­mon foods (eg. fish, meat, legumes, corn, soy­based foods, et cetera) have lots of the same amino acids – and fruits, veg­eta­bles, beers, wines, et cetera, con­tain methanol, so eat­ing stan­dard healthy meals might also be a bit risky if as­par­tame is in­deed acutely toxic.

Also, many of the prob­lem­atic test re­sults in­volved ro­dents as test sub­jects – not hu­mans, whose phys­i­ol­ogy is sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent.

How­ever, the hu­man pro­cess­ing of large amounts of as­par­tame via car­bon­ated drinks may en­hance the up­take of as­par­tic acid and phenyl­ala­nine, not un­like peo­ple get­ting drunk faster with sparkling wines (be­cause the bub­bles in­duce a faster ab­sorp­tion of al­co­hol) – though no re­search has es­tab­lished yet whether this is of any rel­e­vance.

Per­haps more rel­e­vant is a 2015 study which showed that glu­cose in­tol­er­ance in ro­dents and some hu­mans can be in­duced by ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers al­ter­ing the bal­ance of bac­te­rial colonies in the gut mi­cro­biome.

The the­ory is that the low-calo­rie sweet­en­ers favour pro­lif­er­a­tion of the bac­te­ria that are better at ex­tract­ing en­ergy (ie. glu­cose) from food – this ex­tra glu­cose finds its way into blood and body tis­sue where it pro­motes

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