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The Impact of Artificial Sweeteners on Family Health

by Dr Debbie Saxton(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 181 - April 2011

Sugar Free Products are Not a Healthy Option for Children
It is hard to believe that after all the scientific research into healthy eating, parents are still being encouraged to give their children foods containing artificial additives in the belief that these are the healthier option. The latest official advice on the Government's Change 4 Life website correctly states that many young people have too much sugar in their diets, but controversially goes on to recommend sugar free desserts and drinks as an acceptable alternative.

Artificial Sweetners image

Research has shown that additives in these low sugar or sugar free drinks are incredibly harmful, particularly to the very young. Studies have suggested links to neurological brain damage, cancerous tumours and hormone disruption, but there is growing evidence to suggest an even wider range of impacts on health.

As humans we love sweet foods, we are drawn to them as a source of energy and for their taste. Nature has provided us with all the sweetness we need in naturally occurring foodstuffs, yet artificially created chemicals have been developed as alternatives. When chemicals are combined this causes reactions, some of which are toxic, and as our understanding of science increases we are discovering more about the damage or the advantage of such products.

Artificial sweeteners go under many guises, but names to watch out for include: aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame and acesulfame-K.

An Introduction to Artificial Sweeteners
Saccharin - The most established of the artificial sweeteners on the market, this mixture of dextrose and saccharin has been in use for over a century and is found in diet versions of soft drinks. It is 300-500 times sweeter than sugar and contains zero calories.  In 1977 the FDA tried to ban its use after evidence showed it caused cancer in rats. Extensive lobbying by the diet food industry allowed products to stay on the shelves as long as they carried warnings about the cancer risks in animals. This warning was removed in 2001 when the Calorie Control Council insisted the link between animal and human cancers could not automatically be made.

Aspartame - This consists of aspartic acid and phenylalanine and is found in over 6000 common products, including medicines and vitamins. Aspartame was accidentally discovered in a lab in 1965 while trying to produce an anti-ulcer drug. On discovering the sweetness of the chemicals, the company changed its FDA approval from drug to food additive, and in 1974 the FDA approved aspartame for use in a few products. As the evidence mounts in relation to the health dangers of ingesting these chemicals,  aspartame has recently been renamed aminosweet to disassociate the product from negative press.

Sucralose - Partly derived from sugar with the addition of chlorine to produce a product 600 times sweeter than sugar. It has zero calories because it is unusable by the body. It is found in food products, toothpastes and medications.

Acesulfame K - A less familiar sweetener that is frequently added to sweet products to preserve flavour and prolong shelf life. The product is also listed under the name ace-K and acesulfame potassium. It is surrounded by controversy because of the cancer causing additive methylene chloride.

Neotame - Chemically this is very similar to aspartame but is the newest sweetener to be marketed. It is 8000-13000 times sweeter than sugar and is being hailed as a safer version of aspartame.

Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners
Natural Sugars  - honey and whole fruits;
Processed Sugars - raw sugar, brown sugar, molasses;
Sugar Alcohols - xylitol, mannitol, maltitol;
Sweeteners - sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, neotame and acesulfame-K;
Alternative descriptions used for sugars products - corn syrup, high-fructose -corn-syrup, glucose, maltose, inverted sugar, fruit juice concentrates, fructose, lactose, honey, syrup, sucrose, malt and dextrose.

Impact on Health
To understand the dangers of artificial sweeteners on human health it's important to study how they work. As aspartame is the most commonly found sweetener I will focus my points on this substance.

Blood Brain Barrier
Firstly, aspartame releases aspartate during digestion.  Aspartate is a neurotransmitter used by the neurons in the brain.  It is a type of excitatory amino acid.  Excitatory amino acids are normal and necessary brain chemicals, and as such, they are allowed to cross the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is designed to protect the brain from the invasion of harmful chemicals.  When normal neurotransmitters such as aspartate and glutamate cross this barrier in excess, they cause poisoning and can lead to the death of the nerve cells within the brain and spinal cord.  The blood-brain barrier cannot regulate or detect when safe levels have been exceeded, so these neurotransmitters can build up undetected until a toxic level is reached.  This accumulation seems to be particularly insidious in its effect on the developing brains and nervous systems of children. If energy production is reduced in the brain, the protective pumps begin to fail, and glutamate begins to accumulate in the space around the neuron, including the area of the synapse.  If the energy is not restored, the neurons will burn up; they are literally excited to death.

Brain Development
Plasticity of the brain is important in the learning process. At birth the baby's brain chemistry functions homogeneously - the biochemical reactions occur evenly throughout the brain.  But soon after birth, the brain undergoes a rapid acceleration in growth and function.  During this period the level of glutamine, the precursor of glutamate, rises very rapidly in some of the areas of the brain.  Glutamate helps to regulate the development of the wiring of nerves in the new brain.  As the child grows, even beyond teen years, these developing connections grow as well.

This process of moulding the brain continues throughout life, but the majority of growth takes place from 0-7 years of life.  During these critical years, if unborn and young children are fed drinks or food containing aspartame, over-stimulation can occur. It is important to appreciate that many of the toxic effects of excitatory amino acids occur at a time when no outward symptoms develop.  The child does not become sick or show any behaviour that would alert the parents that something is wrong.

Pregnancy and Children
The risk from excitotoxins to infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic health problems is great. Since no experimental work can be done on pregnant women or children, we must look to animal research studies for some clues.

A study by Toth and Lajtha involving mice and rats found that, when aspartame and glutamate were given either as single amino acids or as liquid diets over a prolonged time (several hours to days), they could significantly elevate brain levels of these supposedly excluded excitotoxins. Brain tissue levels of aspartic acid rose as high as 61% and glutamate levels rose 35% in brain tissue over prolonged feeding. The study also concluded that humans were being exposed to high concentrations of excitatory food additives by consuming processed foods and diet drinks.

In the years 1973 to 1990, the number of brain tumours in people over sixty five increased by 67 per cent (National Cancer Institute SEER Program Data). The increase in the number of cases of brain tumours since aspartame was introduced to the diet has been recognized by scientists but has not been attributed directly to the product.

Russell L Blaylock states that a primary concern is the possible effect of these powerful brain cell stimulants on the adult brain, especially in relation to the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's dementia, Huntington's disease and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).  The brain uses excitatory amino acids as normal neurotransmitters, but there exists a delicate balance of excitatory and inhibitory chemicals in the brain.  When this balance is upset, serious disorders of the nervous system can result.

Symptoms of Aspartame Toxicity
Migraines are the most reported symptom, as are headaches, depression, visual changes and seizures. Other symptoms include sleep problems, hallucinations, mood changes, heart rate issues, abdominal cramps, memory loss, rashes, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and weakness, dizziness, diarrhoea and joint pain.

There have been more reports to the FDA for aspartame reactions than all other food additives combined. There are over 900 published studies on the health hazards of aspartame. A list can be found in the National Library Medicine Index.

Sweeteners and Weight Gain
A study of 80,000 women who use sweeteners was evaluated through the Centres for Disease Control and found that the use of artificial sweeteners led to weight gain rather than loss. Commenting on the findings, Mary Nash Stoddard said it was well documented that excitotoxins like aspartame have a reverse affect on weight, and that those consuming diet drinks and food will get more hungry.  The FDA no longer allows manufacturers of diet supplement drinks and foods containing aspartame to label them as weight reduction products, but requires that they be labelled as diet drink or diet food.

The two main components of aspartame are phenylalanine and aspartic acid, both of which stimulate the release of insulin and leptin, hormones that instruct your body to store excess energy as fat. In addition, phenylalanine can drive down serotonin levels when consumed in large amounts. Serotonin helps the body feel full and low levels of the hormone lead to food cravings, in particular high calorie, carb-rich processed junk food.

A study carried out at Purdue University in the United States tested the theory that eating sugar substitutes instead of natural sugar could lead to weight gain rather than weight loss. Researchers fed rats with yoghurt which had been either sweetened with saccharin or sugar. They found that unlike the rats fed with sugar, those eating artificial sweeteners did not have a trigger response to make them feel full and therefore ate more. The findings support data from clinical studies that document an increase in obesity and metabolic syndrome in those consuming drinks sweetened artificially.

With so much evidence now having been collated on the impact of artificial sweeteners on human health, it seems inappropriate that parents should be encouraged to switch from natural sugar products to those containing artificial sweeteners when shopping for their children. Naturally derived foods should ideally be the product of choice for developing babies, children and teenagers and further education and increased awareness is needed to ensure this message gets across to those advising families.

Further Reading
1. Russell L Blaylock.  Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.  Health Press, Santa Fe, NM. P39. 1995.
2. S.K. Van den Eeden, et al.  Aspartame Ingestion and Headaches:  A Randomized Crossover Trial. Neurology. 44 (10). Pp1787-93. Oct 1994.
3. Russell L Blaylock.  Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.  Health Press, Santa Fe, NM. p215. 1995.  
4. R.G. Walton et al. Adverse Reactions to Aspartame: Double-blind challenge in Patients from a Vulnerable Population. Biological Psychiatry. 34 (1-2). July 1-15, 1993.
5. International Journal of Neuroscience. 76 (1-2): 61-9. May 1994.
6. Possible Effects on Seizure Susceptibility. Lancet. P1060. Nov 9, 1984.
7. H.J. Roberts, MD.  Aspartame (NutraSweet): Is it Safe? Philadelphia. Charles Press. 1989.
8. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Aspartame. (Accessed 2/20/09).
9. How Aspartame Became Legal - The Timeline.  (Accessed 2/21/09).
10. Bressler, J, et al. FDA Report on Searle. August 4, 1977.

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About Dr Debbie Saxton

Debbie Saxton CCWP qualified as a Doctor of Chiropractic in 1989 from the Anglo European college of Chiropractic. She is a certified clinical paediatric practitioner in Chiropractic and qualified as a Wellness practitioner in 2009, becoming one of only four UK based Chiropractors to hold the CCWP (certified chiropractic wellness practitioner) qualification. Debbie is author of the Complete Lifestyle Guide, a 12-month programme that encourages people to make small and gradual changes to the way they eat, move and think to improve their health and wellbeing for the long term. Debbie is a commentator on family wellness and lifestyle issues and may be contacted via

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