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However, this approval was rescinded late in 1975 due to highly questionable issues with the safety studies submitted by G. D. Searle & Co.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