THE BLOG
03/14/2013 06:23 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Aspartame Pathway

The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one), has released an "aspartame safety" page that is described as a "resource for professionals." Aspartame is used in more than 6,000 products worldwide, including Diet Coke products, which may contain up to 190 milligrams (mg) of aspartame per 8.3 fluid ounce-serving.

Coca-Cola notes that "when aspartame is digested, the body breaks it down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol" -- and it is methanol that is one of the root problems with aspartame. However, Coca-Cola (and many other food and beverage manufacturers) often misleadingly counter the claims of methanol being a harmful aspect of aspartame by pointing out that it also occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables.

So why would methanol cause a problem in aspartame?

Methanol in Fruits and Veggies Differs From Methanol in Aspartame

Aspartame is primarily made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness. That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol. This is in sharp contrast to naturally-occurring methanol found in certain fruits and vegetables, where it is firmly bonded to pectin, allowing the methanol to be safely passed through your digestive tract.

Methanol acts as a Trojan horse: It's carried into susceptible tissues in your body, like your brain and bone marrow, where the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzyme converts it into formaldehyde, which wreaks havoc with sensitive proteins and DNA.

All other animals have a protective mechanism that allows methanol to be broken down into harmless formic acid, but there's a major biochemical problem with methanol in humans, because of the difference in how it's metabolized compared to all other animals. This is why toxicology testing on animals is a flawed model. It doesn't fully apply to humans.

Aspartame Poses Major Biochemical Problems in Humans

Coca-Cola also misleadingly challenges the link between aspartame and headaches, stating:

Most studies investigating a relationship between aspartame and headaches show no effect. However, results from some small studies have shown a positive connection between aspartame intake and headaches, suggesting a susceptible population subset, although there is no biological explanation. Inconsistent findings may be caused by lack of objective measurements for headache onset or duration.

This simply isn't true. There is, in fact, an obvious biological explanation, according to Dr. Monte, professor emeritus at Arizona State University in food and chemistry:

"Here is the story: There is a major biochemical problem here," he says. "Methyl alcohol is known now, and has been known since 1940, to be metabolized differently by humans from every other animal."

Both animals and humans have small structures called peroxisomes in each cell. Peroxisome contains catalase, which helps detoxify methanol. Other chemicals in the peroxisome convert the formaldehyde to formic acid, which is harmless, but this last step occurs only in animals.

When methanol enters the peroxisome of every animal except humans, it gets into that mechanism. Humans do have the same number of peroxisomes in comparable cells as animals, but human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid.

So to recap: In humans, the methyl alcohol travels through your blood vessels into sensitive areas, such as your brain, that are loaded with ADH, which converts methanol to formaldehyde. And since there's no catalase present, the formaldehyde is free to cause enormous damage in your tissues.

Symptoms from methanol poisoning are many, and include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances, and neuritis. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and may cause birth defects.

A Historical Timeline of Aspartame

Aspartame is the No. 1 source of side-effect complaints to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with more than 10,000 complaints filed and over 91 symptoms documented that are related to its consumption. Unfortunately, aspartame's approval was and still is largely a political affair. Many readers have long forgotten what the 60-Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace stated in his 1996 report on aspartame -- available to view in this 2009 article -- that the approval of aspartame was "the most contested in FDA history."

At the time, independent studies had found it caused brain cancer in lab animals, and the studies submitted by G.D. Searle to the FDA for the approval were quickly suspected of being sloppy at best.

Food Industry Undermines Health Policy, Study Finds

According to a recent international analysis of the involvement by "unhealthy commodity" companies in health policy making, researchers warn that self-regulation was failing, calling for more stringent industry regulations by outside parties. The analysis, which was published in the journal Lancet, points out that aggressive marketing of health-harming foods by multinational food companies is the driving factor behind global epidemics of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Even more importantly, the researchers cited industry documents that reveal how companies are actively trying to affect health legislation and avoid regulation that might harm their bottom lines. As reported by Reuters:

This is done by "building financial and institutional relations" with health professionals, non-governmental organizations and health agencies, distorting research findings, and lobbying politicians to oppose health reforms ... They cited analysis of published research which found systematic bias from industry funding: articles sponsored exclusively by food and drinks companies were between four and eight times more likely to have conclusions that favored the companies than those not sponsored by them.

The Most Dangerous Food Additive on the Market: Are You Being Affected?

Unfortunately, aspartame toxicity is not well known by physicians, despite its frequency. Diagnosis is also hampered by the fact that it mimics several other common health conditions. To determine if you're having a reaction to artificial sweeteners, take the following steps:

• Eliminate all artificial sweeteners from your diet for two weeks.
• After two weeks of being artificial sweetener-free, reintroduce your artificial sweetener of choice in a significant quantity (about three servings daily).
• Avoid other artificial sweeteners during this period.
• Do this for one to three days and notice how you feel, especially as compared to when you were consuming no artificial sweeteners.
• If you don't notice a difference in how you feel after reintroducing your primary artificial sweetener for a few days, it's a safe bet you're able to tolerate it acutely, meaning your body doesn't have an immediate, adverse response. However, this doesn't mean your health won't be damaged in the long run.
• If you've been consuming more than one type of artificial sweetener, you can repeat steps two through four with the next one on your list.

If you do experience side effects from aspartame, please report it to the FDA (if you live in the United States) without delay. It's easy to make a report -- just go to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator page, find the phone number for your state, and make a call reporting your reaction.

For more by Dr. Joseph Mercola, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.