Non-nutritive sweeteners: chemical brews

By Louisa Enright | Nov 16, 2010
Photo by: Patrish Maclean

Containing no calories, non-nutritive sweeteners do not create energy. Thus, these chemical brews have become the backbone of the extremely profitable diet industry. The FDA currently approves five non-nutritive sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, sucralose, and neotame.

Aspartame, or 1-aspartyl 1-phenylalanine methyl ester, was discovered by accident when a scientist licked his fingers. Aspartame is 80 times sweeter than sugar. And, according to Jim Earle in “Sugar-Free Blues: Everything You Wanted to Know About Artificial Sweeteners” (2004), aspartame is the most widely used non-nutritive sweetener. Aspartame is added to “more than 6,000 foods, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals.” Aspartame is sold under many brand names, including NutraSweet and Equal.

Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon Morell write that “aspartame… is a neurotoxic substance that has been associated with numerous health problems including dizziness, visual impairment, severe muscle aches, numbing of extremities, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, retinal hemorrhaging, seizures and depression. It is suspected of causing birth defects and chemical disruptions of the brain.”

Devra Davis in “The Secret History of the War on Cancer” (2007) cites 2001 test results showing the development of cancer in multiple organs of rats, even though dosages were well under those allowed in America (50 mg daily). Davis notes that one can of diet soda contains 200 mg of aspartame. She further notes that there is “no evidence at all” that those who use aspartame actually lose weight. Actually, there is “some indication” that aspartame “creates a sugar deficit” which leads “people to seek more sugar from other sources.”

Earle explains that during digestion, aspartame degrades into methanol, or wood alcohol, and two amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Davis notes that methanol is a known, lethal poison that can cause blindness and brain damage.

Earle notes that Dr. Christine Lydon, an aspartame researcher, explains that phenylalanine and aspartic acid are amino acids found naturally in foods, but in foods they are eaten alongside other amino acids. Separated, each enters “the nervous system in abnormally high concentrations, causing aberrant neuronal firing and potential cell death," which, in turn, is linked to “headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and possibly seizures.”

Jim Turner’s aspartame history notes that The National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) petitioned the FDA in July 1983 to delay approval “pending further testing because aspartame is very unstable in liquid form.”

Saccharin, from the Latin for “sugar,” is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Saccharin, discovered by accident in 1879 when a scientist tasted it, was first used as an antiseptic agent and food preservative. In 1901, John F. Queeny started the Monsanto corporation, manufactured saccharin, and shipped it to a Georgia company, Coca-Cola. In 1958, saccharin mixed with cyclamate (banned in 1969) became Sweet’N Low.

Saccharin originally was an O-toluene sulfonamide derivative. Toluene is a colorless liquid hydrocarbon distilled from coal tar, which may, Earle suggests, account for saccharin’s “bitter, metallic aftertaste.”

Dr. Nathanael J. McKeown writes that “toluene (methylbenzene, toluol, phenylmethane) is an aromatic hydrocarbon (C7 H8) commonly used as an industrial solvent for the manufacturing of paints, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and rubber.…Toluene is found in gasoline, acrylic paints, varnishes, lacquers, paint thinners, adhesives, glues, rubber cement, airplane glue, and shoe polish.”

Saccharin is now manufactured by a more cost-effective method developed in 1950 that begins with synthetically produced methyl anthranilate. Wikipedia explains that anthranilic acid successively reacts with nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and then ammonia to yield saccharin. Another route, Wikipedia continues, begins with o-chlorotoluene. Saccharin is also known as ortho sulfobenzoic acid.

Earle writes that saccharin is “the holy grail of the artificial sweetener industry” because it is believed to not be metabolized by the human body so is excreted rapidly through the urine. This kind of compound, Earle explains, tastes sweet, is stable in prepackaged foods and beverages, does not create any dietary calories, and is “dirt cheap to produce in bulk.”

In 1969, the FDA proposed banning saccharin with cyclamate until its safety was proved, but, Earle notes, significant opposition from a public now concerned with calories saved saccharin. Canada, however, banned saccharin in 1977 as a carcinogen. The U.S. Congress put a two-year moratorium on any ban, but mandated a cautionary label warning of possible health hazards, including cancer. Earle writes that for the next 26 years, numerous studies (2,374) were performed to prove or disprove saccharin safety. In 1991, the FDA gave saccharin, “something of a probationary status,” though the FDA still classifies saccharin as an “anticipated human carcinogen.”

Acesulfame-K, or acesulfame potassium, or 5,6-dimethyl-1,2,3-oxathiazine-4(3H)-one-2,2-dioxide, or ACK, was also discovered in 1967 by a chemist who licked his fingers. ACK is, Earle writes, 200 times sweeter than sugar and is believed not to be metabolized by the body so is excreted unchanged in the urine. The FDA approved ACK in 1988 for limited use and for full use in in 1998. ACK has been marketed under the brand names Sunett, Sweet One, Swiss Sweet, and Sweet & Safe. Pepsi used ACK in Pepsi One upon its FDA approval. And, ACK is often blended with aspartame, as in Twinsweet.

Earle writes that The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) protested to the FDA in 1996 that the safety tests were of mediocre quality. And, that “large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits and dogs. ACK, Earle notes, stimulates insulin secretion which can possibly aggravate hypoglycemia, or low-blood sugar.

Sucralose, or 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-BETA-D-fructofukranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside, was discovered, Earle writes, as a sweetener in 1976 when a graduate student misunderstood “testing” for “tasting” and discovered that “many chlorinated sugars are hundreds or thousands of times sweeter than sucrose.”

Johnson & Johnson claims sucralose (Splenda) is exceptionally stable and that sucralose passes through the body without being broken down. But, Earle notes, sucralose “has the fewest independent scientific tests to its credit of all non-nutritive sweeteners.” And, “independent reviewers of safety tests have found them to be inadequate and methodologically flawed.” Earle notes that the FDA’s “own research has shown that 11 to 27 percent of sucralose is absorbed in humans.” Japanese tests show that as much as 40 percent of sucralose is absorbed.

Earle notes that “several pre-approval tests still indicated potential toxicity.” And, research is now showing some alarming physical reactions, including shrinking of the thymus gland, enlargement of the liver and kidneys, decreased red blood cell count, and decreased fetal body weights. Detractors are pointing to sucralose’s chlorinated molecules, which are also “used as the basis for pesticides such as DDT” and which “tend to accumulate in body tissues.”

Nor is sucralose stable. Prolonged storage, especially at high temperatures, causes breakdown into chemicals which have not been “specifically tested in terms of safety for human ingestion.”

Neotame is produced by The NutraSweet Company and is known as “superaspartame.” It is synthesized from a base of aspartame and 3,3-dimethylbutyraldehyde. It’s chemical name is N-[N-(3,3-dimethylbutyl)-L-a-aspartyl]-L-phenylalanine 1-methyl ester. It is 8000 times sweeter than sugar.

None of these mostly accidentally discovered chemical brews have been shown definitely to be safe for humans. Many may be, in fact, quite dangerous. Here’s three things you can do. Stop eating these products. Buy local, organic, whole foods and cook them yourself. And recognize that we have to change the corporate legal structures that put profit before people.



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