The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Safe Sweetener or Perilous Poison?

Aspartame is a low calorie sugar substitute marketed under brand names such as Equal and NutraSweet. It is a combination of two amino acids: L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It is available as individual packets for adding to foods and it is a component of many diet soft drinks and other reduced- calorie foods. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers. A reader sent me an ad from his local newspaper that recommended using Stevia instead of aspartame, and made these startling claims about aspartame:

  1. It is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria.
  2. Upon ingestion, it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
  3. It accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, migraines, dizzinesss, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.

Let’s look at those claims one by one.

  1. In some markets, aspartame manufacture takes advantage of modern genetic laboratory processes. A plasmid introduces genes into E. coli bacteria; the genes are incorporated into the bacterial DnA and they increase production of enzymes that enhance the production of phenylalanine. The bacteria produce more phenylalanine, serving as little living factories. The phenylalanine these workhorses produce for us is exactly the same as phenylalanine from any other source. It is disingenuous and inflammatory to characterize it as “derived from excrement.” Genetic processes like this are widely used today. One stunning example is Humulin. Diabetics used to develop allergic reactions to the beef and pork antigens in insulin derived from cows and pigs because it was slightly different from human insulin and contained impurities. Scientists found a way to put human insulin genes into E. coli bacteria and put them to work producing true, pure human insulin. This was such a great advantage to diabetics that animal insulins are no longer even available.
  2. Some of the things we ingest are directly absorbed and utilized unchanged, like water. But most of what we ingest is metabolized. Aspartame is metabolized. It does indeed break down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids that we need to survive. Methanol is produced in small amounts by the metabolism of many foods; it is harmless in small amounts. A cup of tomato juice produces six times as much methanol as a cup of diet soda. Methanol is completely metabolized by formaldehyde into formic acid; no formaldehyde remains. Lastly, the formic acid is broken down into water and carbon dioxide. Human studies show that formic acid is eliminated faster than it is formed after ingestion of aspartic acid. So yes, those compounds appear, but so what? We get much larger amounts of the same compounds from our food, and they don’t hurt us.
  3. I searched for documentation of that claim, and I couldn’t find the 75% figure anywhere. What I did find was that FD&C dyes (not aspartame) are the food additives most frequently associated with adverse reactions. Anyway, a list of reported adverse reactions is meaningless by itself. People can report any symptom they noticed after using aspartame, but they can be fooled by the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: just because a symptom occurred after ingesting aspartame, that doesn’t prove aspartame caused the symptom. Controlled studies are needed to determine if the symptom occurred more often in people using aspartame than in people not using it. Many such studies have been done and have not shown a correlation of aspartame use with any of those symptoms.
Internet Hoax

So the ad amounts to scare tactics based on false and distorted information. Actually, this ad is pretty mild compared to some of the alarmist misinformation circulating on the Internet. There we are told that there is a widespread epidemic of aspartame poisoning, causing headaches, seizures, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, blindness, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, even Gulf War Syndrome. We are told that “If you…suffer from fibromyalgia symptoms, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, vertigo, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, or memory loss—you probably have ASPARTAME DISEASE!” We are expected to believe the unsubstantiated claim that “When they remove brain tumors, they have found high levels of aspartame in them.”

Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by the regulatory agencies of more than ninety countries worldwide.

All this misinformation has been identified by various sources including, and as a hoax or urban legend. Much of it hinges on a widely disseminated e-mail by a “nancy Markle” who was accused of plagiarizing it from Betty Martini. Martini is the founder of Mission Possible World Health International, which is “committed to removing the deadly chemical aspartame from our food.” She is also anti-vaccine, anti-fluoride, anti-MSG, a conspiracy theorist, and thinks she was cured of breast cancer by an herbal formula. Her website consists of misinformation, testimonials, and hysterical rants. She implores readers: “YOUR personal horror story needed NOW!” She is associated with a number of others notorious for circulating unreliable information, including the infamous Joseph Mercola. There’s even a book, Sweet Poison, by Janet Hull, creator of the Aspartame Detox Program.

Scientific Studies

Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by the regulatory agencies of more than ninety countries worldwide,with FDA officials describing aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut.”

When the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food evaluated aspartame, they found over 500 papers on aspartame published between 1988 and 2001. It has been studied in animals, in various human populations including infants, children, women, obese adults, diabetics, and lactating women. numerous studies have ruled out any association with headaches, seizures, behavior, cognition, mood, allergic reactions, and other conditions. It has been evaluated far more extensively than any other food additive.

When new rat studies by the Ramazzini Foundation in Italy appeared to show an association with tumors, the European Food Safety Authority examined Ramazzini’s raw data and found errors that led them to discredit the studies. Their updated opinion based on all the data available in 2009 said there was no indication of any genotoxic or carcinogenic potential of aspartame and that there was no reason to revise their previously established ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) for aspartame of 40 mg/kg/day. Studies have shown that actual consumption is well below that limit.

People who are absolutely convinced they get adverse effects from aspartame have been proven wrong. For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of people who reported having headaches repeatedly after consuming aspartame. When they knew what they were consuming, 100% of them had headaches. In a double blind crossover trial, when they did not know what they were getting, 35% had headaches after aspartame, and 45% had headaches after placebo.

Is Stevia Safer?
Skeptic magazine 16.3 (Islam)

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 16.3 (2011)
Buy the print edition
Buy the digital edition

Stevia comes from a plant, and the Guaraní Indians of South America have been using it to sweeten their yerba mate for centuries. The “natural fallacy” and the “ancient wisdom fallacy” sway many consumers, but for those of us who are critical thinkers, who want to avoid logical fallacies and look at the scientific evidence, what does science tell us? Is stevia preferable to aspartame? We really don’t know. Concerns have been raised about possible adverse effects such as cancer and birth defects. Stevia is banned in most European countries and in Singapore and Hong Kong because their regulatory agencies felt that there was insufficient toxicological evidence to demonstrate its safety. The U.S. banned its import in 1991 as a food additive, but the 1994 Diet Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) legalized its sale as a dietary supplement. Most of the safety concerns have been dismissed, but so have the concerns about aspartame. Arguably, the concerns about stevia are more valid than those about aspartame, because there is less evidence refuting them.

The plant extract is refined using ethanol, methanol, crystallization and separation technologies to separate the various glycoside molecules. The Coca- Cola Company sells it as Truvia. Pepsi sells it as Purevia. It is a product of major corporations and is prepared in a laboratory using “toxic” chemicals like methanol. For some reason that doesn’t bother those who are promoting stevia as a natural product.

What about HFCS?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also being demonized. “High” fructose isn’t really so high. HFCS is 55% fructose. Sucrose (table sugar) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Honey is 50% fructose. Apples have 57% fructose; pears have 64%. Fructose has been blamed for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a wide variety of other illnesses, but the evidence is inconclusive. Avoiding fructose would mean avoiding all sources of fructose, not just HFCS. Avoiding fruit is probably not healthy. An International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Expert Panel concluded that “there is no basis for recommending increases or decreases in [fructose] use in the general food supply or in special dietary use products.” HFCS is 25% sweeter than sucrose, so you can use less of it and get fewer calories. Limiting total calorie intake is healthy, and both HFCS and aspartame can contribute to that goal.

Is Aspartame Safe?

Yes! Aspartame is safe for everyone except people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). They must avoid aspartame because they can’t process phenylalanine, and accumulated high levels of phenylalanine can damage their brains. Science has adequately demonstrated that aspartame is safe for everyone else. END

About the Author

Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is

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  1. kilty says:

    So you have one person Dr. Harriet Hall who says Aspartame is safe and Stevia is bad. Well I have tried both and had to go to the hospital after ingesting them.
    Who watches this so-called doctor Harriet Hall. What big pharma is pushing her to get people to use these incredibly toxic drugs.
    You should check her out first. We know from experience what Aspartame and Stevia do and one will kill you.

  2. 123elle says:

    Good work!

  3. Jon Adams says:

    Does anyone have any research on how aspartame affects the glycemic index/load on humans, versus sugar? It appears both aspartame and stevia have lower insulin responses, with stevia significantly beating both aspartame and sucrose.

    Seems worth noting.

  4. PETER says:

    Aspartame is permitted pretty much in every country.
    Do you think the FDA would allow a “toxic drug” to be put into food?
    Just because you went to hospital after taking stevia and aspartame proves nothing.

  5. Joel Brothers says:

    Aspartame is probably OK, but it tastes like garbage. It has a really nasty aftertaste..almost as bad as Saccharine. I use Splenda, because it has no aftertaste, and you can cook with it. As far as anything else really doesn’t matter because all of the sweeteners are 95% maltodextrin, anyway.

  6. Mark says:

    Great article, thanks so much! I am a type 1 diabetic and have been so for 22 years. I have been using artificially sweetened products for all that time and have never experienced any negative side effects that I am aware of. Of course, that does not prove anything! But it does lend some credence to aspartame’s safety. Love Skeptic, keep on doing what you do.

  7. Felix E Larocca MD says:

    How come aspartame hides its warnings about phenylketonuria with invisibly small characters? Nothing to hide?

  8. Jonathan Sims says:

    Why not just conquer your sweet tooth? It doesn’t take long.

  9. SkeleTony says:

    I am a type 1 diabetic also and have used massive amounts of aspartame (and for the last 10 years Stevia as well) since being diagnosed back in 1993. I have never had any health issues related to such. People like Bill Maher have perplexed me with this anti-aspartame foaming-at-the-mouth ranting for years as I have never seen ANY scientific evidence that there was anything to worry about with these.

    Then I come to the comment section of and see these same frothing at the mouth crusaders offering conspiracy theories and crap. WTF?!

  10. SkeleTony says:

    What warnings should aspartame be including on those little packets?!

  11. SkeleTony says:

    1. Anecdotes are worthless. Anyone can claim to have had to go to the hospital after doing anything but this is a correlation fallacy at best and no one can scrutinize an anecdote.

    2. If you are going to attack the Doctor’s credibility and character then you have to do better than bald assertions about her being ‘part of the conspiracy’ or some such. Has she ever said ANYTHING which was dishonest or false in any piece she has ever published?!

    3. Science disagrees with you. We do NOT “know from experience” any such thing as you claim here kiddo.

  12. Hugo says:

    Firstly she isn’t a “so-called doctor.” She is a doctor unless you have evidence that she didn’t qualify as a physician. Aspartame has massive research by governments and scientists all over the world, for approximately 50 years and there’s no reason as yet to say it’s dangerous.
    You (using the Royal “we”) make the claim that it’s dangerous and put you in hospital. Who are we going to believe, a real doctor who has researched it, thousands of scientists and doctors, and a million lab rats…. or you and a few fruit cakes?

  13. Philip says:

    Might I suggest you carefully reread the article again..

  14. René de Kat says:

    “So you have one person Dr. Harriet Hall who says Aspartame is safe and Stevia is bad” You clearly didn’t read or understand the article at all.

    Quote from article “When the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food evaluated aspartame, they found over 500 papers on aspartame published between 1988 and 2001. It has been studied in animals, in various human populations including infants, children, women, obese adults, diabetics, and lactating women. numerous studies have ruled out any association with headaches, seizures, behavior, cognition, mood, allergic reactions, and other conditions. It has been evaluated far more extensively than any other food additive.”

    So, it’s it no 1 person saying this, it’s a plethora of studies confirming it is safe.

  15. Michael Buck says:

    Felix E Larocca MD had his license to practice medicine in Missouri revoked for having sex with several teenage girls who were his patients in food addiction groups and/or private patients.

    Nice guy. Seems like he is the guy with something to hide.

    Follow this link to see what he is really like:

  16. Daryle Scott says:

    Great article, thanks. As a lover of Diet Coke I’m happy that science supports my own experience that the vast majority of us are 100% fine eating aspartame. Whether on this topic or vaccines it’s nice to read that some people still believe in science.

  17. Arshaad Suliman says:

    People who are absolutely convinced they get adverse effects from aspartame have been proven wrong. For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of people who reported having headaches repeatedly after consuming aspartame. When they knew what they were consuming, 100% of them had headaches. In a double blind crossover trial, when they didnot know what they were getting, 35% had headaches after aspartame, and 45% had headaches after placebo.

  18. Charles Mielke says:

    Listening to public radio recently, I heard the possibility that “artificial sweeteners” (no, I don’t know which products were considered) might have adverse effects on the microflora of the GI tract. Sorry to be so vague, but that’s about how it came across on the radio; I think this was on “The People’s Pharmacy.” Though the hosts of that show do report on “home remedies” they are also quite reliable in chasing down the science behind the issues they report on.

    Does anyone else know something about this?

  19. Rommel says:

    Anecdote? I have one: Every time I try Aspartame things become sweeter and I don’t get any side effects. There, I just prove you that is safe.

  20. Dave Bailey says:

    “Aspartame is safe for everyone except people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU).”

    Nice article, but I have to (slightly) disagree with that part. If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it is also bad for you. It won’t cause brain damage, but it will provoke a reaction rapidly and painfully. In my experience with IBS it is perhaps the quickest way of ensuring that I will spend the next few hours staying near a toilet, doubling over with abdominal cramps, and popping Imodium like candy. It is one of the items blacklisted on a FODMAP diet. But if you don’t have PKU or IBS, I agree that it’s perfectly safe. I also agree about the aftertaste, bloody awful!

  21. Gina Bisaillon says:

    All sweeteners are unnatural (i.e., they aren’t found in nature), so unless you have a disease that absolutely requires it, it’s better to have a small amount of something sweetened with sugar than large quantities of foods containing sweeteners. It seems to me that the danger of using them is the temptation to eat too much junk food and especially to drink large quantities of diet sodas. It’s interesting to observe people at the food court: the ones having diet soda are usually the ones who are eating burgers, fried chicken, French fries and other junk food. Needless to say, they are overweight.

  22. Armitage says:

    We seem to have hundreds of thousands of studies showing sugar is bad, and that doesn’t stop people, and nothing (…maybe yet) showing Aspartame is a problem with healthy individuals… I see people complain that big pharma is just out to kill us, but they never consider our political and military enemies also allow it. You’d think Russia would love to prove big pharma has the U.S. government in it’s pocket and is trying to kill off the population.

  23. Jim Stovall says:

    Take a closer look at the article because it lists a plethora of studies supporting the synthesis that Aspartame is ok.This is good news for me, a diabetic.

  24. Janet Dreyer says:

    Thank you Dr. Hall for this well reviewed article. I did want to add, though, as another reviewer suggested, that some recent well-reviewed studies have found that aspartame, sucralose and saccharin induce glucose intolerance (more so than do glucose or sucrose), possibly by altering the gut microbiota. After reading this I quit my five or six diet soda a day habit and switched to plain carbonated water. Didn’t miss the sweetness after a couple of days!

  25. Wayne Brown says:

    If you are a sugar addict (and many of us are, from childhood), you need to make sweeping changes to your diet, such as total elimination of junk food and fruit juices.

    I’m trying to bring my sugar consumption down to 50 grams per day recommended by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation. It’s almost impossible, since sugar is in everything. I agree that Aspartame is harmless but it’s a bit like methadone used to kick a heroine habit. You need to fight your “sweet tooth”. For example, instead of *any* soda, cultivate a taste for lemon-flavoured water.

    And for God’s sake, watch the sugar in your kid’s diet. Don’t raise another generation of sugar junkies.

  26. eleceia says:

    I’ve been drinking diet coke for 15 years and it contains aspartame. If it was dangerous I would be dead by now or at the least very very ill.

    I tried Stevia and it tastes awful so i’ll keep using aspartame without any worries.

  27. Marion Lansford says:

    Oh, so glad to gave this article! Thank you!

  28. Syvret says:

    “All sweeteners are unnatural (i.e., they aren’t found in nature),”

    Stevia is a plant extract. I grow Stevia and dry it and use it to sweeten mint tea during the summer.
    Unless you are chewing on sugar cane, by your definition, sugar is “unnatural”.
    Natural does not equal good. “unnatural” does not equal bad.

  29. Nissim Hadar says:

    You were sent to a mental hospital, right?
    You are a bad person!!!

  30. Adorable Atheist says:

    Natural, like snake venom…….

    Anyway, as Wayne Brown stated, moderation is the key.

    The information on Social Media is laughable at best and dangerous at worst. People won’t do their own research, just go with ‘what Aunt Polly read this one time or got told by someone at the store‘.

    Thanks eSkeptic!

  31. Dave says:

    OK, it doesn’t agree with you. Shrimp & shellfish put me in the hospital. That doesn’t mean the substance in question is poison.

  32. jackie di Caro says:

    Very interesting and informative!
    The only issue I have is the idea that high fructose corn syrup is perfectly safe to consume in the same way we may consume, say, an apple, which may indeed have the same levels of HFCS. The fact that it is a liquid and is more readily and quickly absorbed in the intestines make this product probably a hazard for the pre-diabetic crowd (all of us?) I understand the constant liquid sugar consumption puts an enormous strain on the production of insulin, making body cells “resistant’ to sugar uptake, leading to diabetes.. The consumption of an apple, however, with all the skin and cell roughage takes longer to digest. THAT is the key. The faster you absorb this hit of sugar, the worse strain on your pancreas.
    I welcome your skeptic views on this!
    Keep up the great work!

  33. bob pease says:

    syllygism follows

    Sugar Bad for some folks

    All folks need sugar taste


    all folks must use sugar substitute

    having established this :
    Conclusion Follows

    it is somewhat uncool to use unsafe sugar substitutes

    Logic 101 homework
    give several bogus conclusions the follow from the above .
    which of these conclusions are REALLYTROO?


    we don’t got to show you no Steenkin’
    Logic !!


  34. bob pease says:

    full moon?

    AD HOMINEM repealed??

    ” I weep for the next generation !!”
    … The receptionist in ‘Ferris Bueller’s day off’

  35. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Regarding High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): I have a scientist friend who told me he went on a diet that basically focused on eliminating HFCS. He lost several pounds and got his blood sugar under control. I was just about to remark that HFCS isn’t any worse than cane sugar or honey, when he said, “I know HFCS isn’t particularly bad for me, but it is a cheap sweetener and it is used widely in junk food. So it is a simple marker for food I should avoid.”

    That episode has always made me wonder how many dietary false correlations are out there…

  36. brad tittle says:

    It is perfectly reasonable to call the product excrement. It is unreasonable to believe that excrement is bad because it is called excrement. I ask that all folks please continue to believe that excrement is evil though. That way there are less people competing for jobs in the excrement harvesting world.

    Secret: If you are in need of a job and can’t one and are able bodied, find a septic pumping company. You can get a better than living wage job with almost no experience as long as you can handle pumping septic tanks.

    The entities in charge of Water and Sewer are the last ones to lose funding.

  37. Alan Buckle says:

    Kilty’s comment causes considerable sadness. He/she demonstrates a very serious lack of education, accompanied as is so unhappily frequent by an irrelevant and self-demeaning demonstration of ‘the arrogance of ignorance.’ And a totally gratuitously offensive, negative comment concerning the doctor.

    He/she should not be criticized but rather we should assist by guiding such unfortunate people towards the joys of actively searching for a better, properly substantiated approach to reality.

  38. Kevinmcl says:

    If calories, per se, are not the big concern for you, might I suggest using xylitol as your sweetener?

    Like table sugar (sucrose), it is a plant extract. It comes in crystals like sugar, it tastes like sugar, it has sweetness similar to sugar, it has no aftertaste, it is naturally occurring (in tiny amounts) in the body.

    A small number of people get slightly rumbly in the tummy if they start consuming large amounts, suddenly. Most people don’t (hi, there!), and any mild discomfort quickly resolves.

    The three biggest drawbacks to xylitol are:
    – it is more expensive than table sugar
    – it doesn’t caramelize like sugar when cooked, so you don’t get the same browning on cookies or pancakes, etc.
    – it is not food for yeast, so it can’t be used as the source for yeast to feed on, in leavened products like bread and such… so, if you are making bread (or other yeast-rising baked goods), add the usual amount of plain sugar or molasses or maple syrup or whatever is called for, to let the loaf rise, but if you want a sweet bread, you can substitute xylitol for the remainder of the sweetener beyond the amount the yeast needs.

    The big bonus to using xylitol is that it actively protects your mouth against the bad flora that cause dental caries (tooth decay) and gum disease. Overall, you’d need to ingest about 10gm per day. Xylitol has been big in Europe for many decades, so they have far more studies on its safety, as well as on its effectiveness in helping to fight tooth decay and periodontal disease.

    Because so many non-sugary foods contain sugars or contain starches that convert in the mouth, it would be difficult to exclude all foods that provide sustenance for the nasty biofilm that coats and decays your teeth. However, by simply eating a little xylitol after every meal or snack or drink, you can displace much of the sugary residue, allowing the good mouth flora to flourish and displace the bad ones. Your teeth will thank you. Apparently, so will your heart, but we leave it as an exercise for the reader to check studies that link some heart and artery disease to disease in the mouth.

    Disclaimer: I don’t work for the Xylitol industry… I just buy Xylitol candies, and my dental hygienist has been remarking how little work she has to do on my mouth for the past couple of years. I was exposed to the whole xylitol thing by “Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye” by Dr. Ellie Phillips, and then followed up several of the studies in her bibliography. But, from your point of view as good skeptics, this comment is an anecdote from a “study of one”, so take my words with a grain of salt and do your own digging. I just wanted to mention an alternate sweetener with interesting features, that doesn’t get a much press.

  39. Pet says:

    Stevia has been available since 2011 in the EU. Tropicana amongst others sell lines with it

  40. LovleAnjel says:

    I also have IBS and have never had a reaction to any sweetener. Each IBS case is different.

  41. Jared says:

    This is not a closed case as Hall seems to indicate!!

    I noticed the author excluded studies done after 2001. I’m not sure why this is the case, since there are studies since then that seem to indicate that aspartame may be carcinogenic.

    One is here:

    Hall does mention the Ramazzini group who also seem to indicate aspartame may be carcinogenic.

    The Ramazzini group have been criticized on several grounds, first their doses have been called into question and therefore the subjects’ prenatal exposure. Second, incidence of mammary cancer were not the result of aspartame exposure and third, the group’s rat colony suffered from pulmonary disease thus their subjects had an increase in pulmonary cancers (not due to aspartame exposure). HOWEVER, the Ramazzini research did indicate that aspartame exposure led to greater incidents of leukemia/lymphoma in the non control group and NOT pulmonary cancer!

    Hall only mentions the Ramazzini group’s statement of 2009, however the same group has done studies since then (2010) indicating a link of aspartame to cancer. It can be found here:

    I don’t get all the details, but it is clear that this isn’t a closed case as Hall seems to indicate. It’s clear that whether aspartame is carcinogenic or not it is still being debated among scientists. Personally, I’d rather error on the side of caution.

    Here is a good site with links to the published research:

  42. Bryanderthal says:

    You’ve never heard of Harriet Hall before? You must be new to this world….

    Welcome! Enjoy your education! You’re about to learn a lot about yourself and the world if you stick around.

  43. alan neumann says:

    Anecdotal stories about how YOU were affected by a FOOD ADDITIVE, not a DRUG is not science. Were you tested in a double-blind study? Sorry your little rant holds no scientific evidence for anything credible and no, I’m not defending big Pharma, only Dr. Harriet who DOES understand the scientific method and how products are tested and certified.

  44. Wayne says:

    Dr. Hall has presented documented evidence in this article and you have offered innuendos and denigration. Well Hillary, I guess you are entitled to your opinion as we still have free speech in this country for the time being. But I choose to believe Dr. Hall.

  45. Retterson says:

    Hear! Hear! Well said.

  46. Retterson says:

    Good point. Science moves quickly and what was once true may prove false later on. Note, however, that the first link goes to the Brigham and Women’s study which the hospital later disavowed as “weak science.”

  47. Retterson says:

    So, I think this is a false dialectic. The question “is asparatame good or bad” is an overly simplistic one. Yes, it has proven generally safe for human consumption – meaning that the risk to someone consuming it is very small, statistically.

    But because drugs/chemicals/substances can never be proven completely safe (unless you test every human), we can not dismiss the probability or reality that individual biochemistry may interact with some substances differently in some people. (And BTW, every FDA-approved drugs that has proven safe and effective, also has a plethora of reported side effects.)

    Those who disparage the folks citing anecdotal evidence are just as guilty of the “all or nothing” fallacy as those who say something is unsafe because it disagrees with their unique biology. Neither point of view is wholly correct.

    Will it kill you? Research indicates with a high degree of confidence that the probability is very, very low. Could it cause adverse side effects? Yes. It could, and it has in some people.

    It is neither “good” nor “bad” — it has a generally positive risk profile. Your experience may vary.

  48. Jeff says:

    “S/he” is a better abbreviation, as it’s more compact and puts women first for a change. It’s also very useful when referring to deities who may come in all possible genders by the simple addition of /it, resulting in “s/he/it,” a quite appropriate, two-syllable appellation for describing said deities.

  49. J. Gravelle says:

    Pretty sure they couldn’t put it on the Internet if it weren’t true…

  50. DanVignau says:

    That is just plain wrong! Many people have smoked deadly cigarettes for 50 plus years with no adverse effects, but many others have died.

  51. Billy J says:

    J Gravelle you are correct.
    Everything including DJT Tweets are perfectly true.
    Six or seven billion people who get their news over the internet
    could not be proven wrong in their “knowledge” of the facts.

  52. DanVignau says:

    Good Point!

  53. S. Brown says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, so this might be redundant… but check out the sweetener “WheyLo” on the web. I use that. My problem w/aspartame is, as some say above, the taste. Splenda is fine but the problem with it is that it’s fluoridated sugar… the fluorine is fine for consumption because it makes the compound too stable to be broken down by our digestive systems and thus not absorbed… but that’s also its *problem*, since it tends to just sit and accumulate in sewers and whatever they drain to. It’s *too* stable. Check out WheyLo.

  54. DanVignau says:

    Abe Lincoln warned us of just that. His picture was posted, so I know it is true.

  55. Stephen says:

    Dear Kilty,

    Fuck you very much!

  56. Deborah Graham says:

    I don’t understand how one compares fruit and honey with High Fructose Corn Syrup! The latter is a processed food stuff that is made from corn, which most likely is processed from GMO corn. Apples, pears and honey are natural foods that when eaten in their natural state have not been processed. Personally, I do not trust any of these artificial sweetners and would not consume them.

  57. Nels says:

    So you had to go to the hospital. So you blame it on an innocent chemical. A “Post hoc” reasoning, and no compelling argument against aspartame.

  58. Nels says:

    I use sucralose for the same reasons, no aftertaste and it is stable to use in cooking, unlike aspartame or cyclamates.

  59. Paul vg says:

    I have a theory – it’s that worrying overmuch about “foods that can kill you” will increase your level of stress – and probably kill you – eventually.

  60. Janice Muir says:

    Sadly, my daughter and I both tested allergic to aspartame. This doesn’t mean aspartame is poisonous for other people. If we vilified and banned every food someone is allergic to, there would likely be nothing left to eat, not even chicken. (My daughter’s father is allergic to chicken.)

  61. Margo Moore says:

    Yes, I just saw Dr. Michael Greger’s short video on the topic:

  62. Robert says:

    I know what you mean Kitty. I mistakenly took a sip of a drink with some in it. After that all my kids were born naked.

  63. Robert says:

    Kitty, I know what you mean. Several years ago I mistakenly had a drink with some in it. Since then all my kids have been born naked. Robert

  64. bob pease says:

    Established Mental Health and Addiction study professionals
    insisted that Marijuana was a “Gateway” Drug.
    Consequently the lives of many people were ruined by felony conviction and serving Hard time.

    The moronic ” logic” involved was that Marijuana use conditioned people to need stronger drugs and was therefore a danger to public health and safety.

    They moronically ignored` the real fact that the Process of Acquisition of the drug caused people to associate with criminals because the drug was illegal.

    Kafka could not have done so well in writing about Twisted Logic in public policy

    “It the Law says THAT, then the law is an ass!”
    ” Charles Dickens

    sic transit

    Dr. Sidethink Hp. D.l

  65. SkeleTony says:

    “so unless you have a disease that absolutely requires it, it’s better to have a small amount of something sweetened with sugar than large quantities of foods containing sweeteners. It seems to me that the danger of using them is the temptation to eat too much junk food and especially to drink large quantities of diet sodas. It’s interesting to observe people at the food court: the ones having diet soda are usually the ones who are eating burgers, fried chicken, French fries and other junk food. Needless to say, they are overweight.” -Gina Bisailon

    I do not agree that it is better to eat sugar-sweetened foods than to eat foods with aspartame/Stevia. This is what has lead to the current explosion of diabetes in the U.S.. Since ‘artificial sweeteners’ do not pose problems for 99.9 % of people and sugar does cause problems for EVERYONE it seems to me that it is better to use aspartame/Stevia.
    Also there is no need for the false dichotomy of “Controlled diet with sugar vs. eating a ton of crap with aspartame’. We should ALL control our diets and eat according to correct serving size portions.

    AGAIN, your personal anecdotes do not and cannot convince any rational person of anything. To make the outrageous claim that it is usually diet soda drinkers who eat crap in food courts (is there any other type of food served in any food courts?!) is dishonest and silly. I can refute this four ways to Wednesday but this message is already too long.

  66. bob pease says:

    Mad Magazine Cascaade follows

    1. ” people who believe that worrying overmuch about “foods that can kill you” will increase your level of stress – and probably kill you – will increase their level of stress and probably kill them.”

    people who believe that worrying overmuch about
    people who believe that worrying overmuch about “foods that can kill you” will increase your level of stress – and probably kill you – will increase their level of stress and probably kill them.worrying overmuch about “foods that can kill you” will increase your level of stress – and probably kill you – will increase their level of stress and probably kill them.

  67. bob pease says:

    post hic ergo Propter hock??

  68. Violet Anderson says:

    Hey, Robert. Enough misogyny on the net without you adding to it. She may be delusional. But that’s no reason to get nasty with her.

  69. Howard Winet says:

    It is easy to smugly assume that Kilty was a plant. She certainly evoked some very entertaining responses from a host of skeptic warriors, eager to do battle with this unfortunate ignorant potential voter. If it weren’t for the vast size of the “Armies of Ignorance”, this little game would be fun. But they are real and too large to be so dismissed. We should be discussing ways to penetrate the wall she will set up to rationalize her rejection of the reasoned responses. Our childrens’ futures depend on it.

  70. Steve says:

    Please explain the logical fallacy in this statement: “You are a Republican or you hate the United States”. Now compare your reasoning with this statement to the author’s statement that aspartame is “a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers.”

    I don’t consume aspartame, but I don’t see it as evil incarnate. I just don’t like its taste. This article ignores a number of reasonable concerns. There is a correlation between weight and artificial sweeteners. Not every scientist agrees that the pros of artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, exceed the cons. A quick cite that appears reputable is:

    Kilty may have relied too much on personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that the author’s argument is logically sound.

  71. Steve says:

    Well said.

  72. Louise says:

    Sounds like propaganda put out by the sugar industry–or competing artificial sweetner manufacturers.

  73. Martin says:

    Kilty, no its not just “one person” who says its safe. Its the regulatory agencies of many countries and also many test results going back decades. it is people like you, wackjobs, who create unnecessary scares when there are plenty of real ones to worry about. You are likely anti-vac and anti-flouride and I assume in favor of alternative quack medicine. You folks always seem to bundle your stupidity and irrational fears into various predictable groupings. On top of all this, you are probably financially broke from over-paying for organic foods at exorbitant prices that vendors know you will pay no matter what…. no wonder they charge what they do. No wonder organic produce is always way more expensive than non-organic. Being cancer-phobic must be very stressful for you. Get a life.

  74. Claude Balloune says:

    Kitty, I would basically say- don’t trust ANY of these charlatans! Except your Tarot-card reader.
    And possibly your Astrologer, if he/she is the right one!
    I myself eschew this “diet-coke” stuff, but only because of the bad taste. So I drink “regular” coke, with its horrible chemical sucrose (formula C12H22O11).
    It tastes better, but I do know much of this C12H22O11 chemical is converted into Carbon Dioxide! And thus contributing to our planet-warming!
    But Big Pharma has outsmarted us! They have ALREADY pumped loads of Carbon Dioxide into your soft drink, the sneaky folks!
    So the moment you pop open a can of this planet-destroying poison, (hear that “hiss”?) either Aspartame OR C12H22O11. you are contributing to global warming!
    And what about sugar in beets, carrots, tomatoes and apples? BIG Pharma is laughing at us!
    It is best not to eat.
    And stay away from tap water- it is full of Dihydrogen Monoxide! Would Big Pharma or your government tell you this? NO! They are way too smart for us!
    Take care, Kitty. And don’t step on the cracks in your sidewalk! They have been put there for a purpose. (Don’t ask!)
    – Claude

  75. Claude Balloune says:

    Violet Anderson –
    I think you may mean “Stephen”.
    re his- “Dear Kilty, Fuck you very much!”

    But then perhaps you’re trying not to notice such teenyboppers who send out silly “shocking” stuff on Mommy’s iPhone when she is otherwise occupied, putting their bedsheets in the laundry (“That’s the FOURTH TIME this week, Stephen!”)
    Time to take away his smut-filled iPhone, Mom!

  76. ClaudeHopper says:

    Hi Harriet,

    Excellent article and I agree with most of it. However, you should probably re-think this line:

    “Fructose has been blamed for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a wide variety of other illnesses, *but the evidence is inconclusive*.”

    There is a growing mountain of evidence that leads precisely to that conclusion.

  77. David Dressler, BA, RMT says:

    I am going to come at this from “left field” with what at first may seem off topic, but then you may see how it is on target….

    The question in the post is not only about whether certain food additives are harmful or safe, but about what counts as evidence as to their safety or benefit, or if in fact there is any evidence one way or the other.

    I am going to question whether there is evidence that there is evidence. That was not a misprint. I am questioning the scientific method itself.

    Medicine is supposedly based on “evidence.” Sometimes it is called “evidence-based medicine” (as though were medicine not based on evidence). But did you know that what is called evidence-based medicine (EBM) only began in the early 1960s?

    In an investigative report I wrote in 1999 I spoke with the “father” of evidence-based medicine, Dr. Kerr White. He is the man who started the movement in the 1960s. Dr. Archie Cochrane of the famed Cochrane Collaboration, that analyzes for scientific accuracy every medical research article ever written, was Dr. White’s student.

    In my interview, I asked Dr. White what medicine was based on, if not evidence, before 1960. His answer was shocking: “Opinion.” It was 1999 so I asked him what medicine was based on in 1999. “Opinion,” he answered.

    I asked him for a more exact answer, and Dr. White said this: “Only 15% of all medical procedures [drugs and surgeries] are proven scientifically to do more good than harm.” Shocking. This means 85% of all medical procedures are of unproven safety or efficacy.

    Would you drive a car that had an 85% chance of blowing up? Or investing in a stock you had reason to believe had an 85% likelihood of bankrupting you? In that year (1999), “correctly” prescribed drugs and surgeries killed over 110,000 Americans and this number is rising.

    I checked Dr. White’s horrific statement by researching the safety and efficacy issue in medicine by reading research on the topic in several European countries and Canada. I found percentages of 10-15% most often and a single Canadian figure of 20%. In other words, Dr. White’s “diagnosis” as to the evidence base in medicine appears to be corroborated.

    This 15% applies to “medicine” as a generalization. It does not mean that any particular procedure will be either beneficial or harmful. This remains to be seen in each individual patient’s case. Hence the “art” of medicine! It is not all science.

    And that brings us back to the case in point: the sweet truth about aspartame and stevia. My point in all this is that one cannot trust so-called “evidence” one way or the other in the matter, exactly because the evidence quite likely is flawed because evidence-based medicine itself is flawed. Research methods themselves are often flawed.

    In the end, there is every reason to be skeptical about medical opinion based on medical evidence because there is probably only a 15% likelihood of it being right.

  78. Lydia E. Robles says:

    Tested on infants and children??

  79. patti says:

    I agree w/Jared; article is lacking recent data. (how could it… is from Skeptic 16.3 (2011)) Article is lacking any footnotes; needs citations to various stated studies, legal journals, FDA published data etc. Article was generated based upon a reader’s submitting an “ad from his local newspaper, that recommended using Stevia, instead of aspartame…” What can I say, I’m a ‘chapter/verse’ kind of gal…I’d even like to know which newspaper, date, and section ad appeared in…

  80. patti says:

    I agree w/Jared; article is lacking recent data. (how could it…article appeared in Skeptic Magazine 16.3 (2011)) Article is lacking any footnotes; needs citations to various stated studies, legal journals, FDA published data etc. Article was generated based upon a reader’s submitting an “ad from his local newspaper, that recommended using Stevia, instead of aspartame…” What can I say, I’m a ‘chapter/verse’ kind of gal…I’d even like to know which newspaper, date, and section ad appeared in…

  81. westcj says:

    ” He or she” is fine , swap them if you want ”she” first – “s/he/it” looks sh/it/ty.

  82. Brent says:

    I like this article a lot. There is finally some logic thinking going on.

    My only small concern is the paragraph on fructose. Specifically:

    “Avoiding fructose would mean avoiding all sources of fructose, not just HFCS.”

    There is a massive difference to how one’s body deals with concentrated HFCS from drinks or in processed carbohydrates as opposed to fruit that have natural fiber in them. The fiber content in the fruit causes a much slower uptake and processing of the sugars, whereas in a drink laced with lots of sugar, one’s liver cannot always deal with such high concentrations of sugars in the blood, hence the need to release insulin to clean all these sugars up.

    Continuously causing your body to react in this way to cope with high volumes of glucose/sugars can cause insulin resistance which leads to diabetes in the end.

  83. Anne says:

    Kilty has not given us the full story. A) she ingested aspartame, and B) she was hospitalised. She fails to say what else she ingested at the same time (surely she did not merely eat a spoonful of the sweetener on its own?). Secondly, she does not say for what reason she went to hospital – could it have been for a broken leg, a case of measles, bubonic plague, or to give birth?

  84. Jackie says:

    What I am really getting hung up on is… how can a one-celled organism poop with no colon?

  85. Ian says:

    I grew a stevia plant in my garden. I chopped up the leaves and used them, together with a reduced amount of sugar, to cook rhubarb. Have not seen the plants for sale for a few years.

  86. Carolyn says:

    I’ve gained even more knowledge about artificial sweeteners having read Dr. Hall’s information and subsequent responses to her information. Those responses are interesting, informative, entertaining and some down right scary.

    I’m not a scientist, medical researcher, doctor or nutritionist, but I am a person who suffered from optic migraines linked to artificial sweeteners. Five were enough for me. Substituting diet soda with water, unsweetened tea and coffee has ended my optic migraines. What hasn’t ended is my curiosity why?

    Neither my one trip to the ER, nor appointments with my internal medicine physician, GYN, ophthalmologist and neurologist that included an MRI resulted in any explanation other than they’ve “seen this with other patients.”

    Until other theories or new evidence challenging and disproving Dr. Hall’s explanation currently considered the best univerally, scientifically held beliefs, in general, that Aspertame and some artificial sweeteners are safe who am I to dispute those claims. As imperfect as it can sometimes be, I’ll continue to accept science over pseudoscience. I’ll also explore the possibility of having the genetic disorder phenylketonuria with my doctor.

    I don’t disagree with checking Dr. Hall’s credentials, questioning or disagreeing with her but resorting to cheap name calling because one doesn’t agree with what Dr. Hall has to say is unacceptable and immediately discredits that person.

    As a lay person, I feel all that I can do when trying to understand anything unfamiliar is to start with those with whom I respect. I respect science and the Skeptic Society. Since Dr. Hall is the SkepDoc, a family physician who writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking and is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and editor she has my attention.

  87. Greg Manko says:

    I love it – no BS (bad science) at all. Adressess all of my “favourite” fallacies – esp. the “natural is better” BS! Thanks. As a high school science teacher, I love a good reasoned argument, but sadly don’t hear them as much I’d like to.

  88. Greg Manko says:

    You seem to be basing your distrust on this 15% number, for which the evidence is anecdotal even if accepted as an accurate figure. I am quite certain that better than 15% of the medical procedures I’ve had so far have been positive. True that none of them will prevent me from dieing one day, but they have made things better, overall. I’m sure in better health than someone from even 100 years ago. 200 years ago, at my age, I’d be long dead – so medical science is good for something.

  89. Richard scott says:

    Sent article to friend a retired pediatric neurologist. He noted a patient with plus, phenylketonuria, who was well controlled but during pregnancy drank large amounts of aspartame diet pop. When child was born had severe deficits. The load during early stages of intrauterine growth was toxic.
    Physicians caring for patients with such metabolic diseases should be aware.

  90. Mary says:

    Hello all, both aspartame and stevia give me rapid-onset migraines, a reaction that happens in less than a minute. Unfortunately I have unknowingly eaten, or drunk, (or chewed gum) foods that contained them and whammo. Many migraine sufferers have the same reaction. So even though they are “safe”, they do something that hasn’t been researched enough.

  91. EJH says:

    Frankly I think that you are all arguing about the wrong thing.
    The real problem is putting sweeteners into just about everything.

    Cut out the sweeteners and you will find the natural sweetness of food much more satisfying

  92. The Scoundrel says:

    I enjoyed the article and I would like to see a similar, non emotional, non anecdotal article assessment of the pop-phenomenon variously called “gluten intolerance”.

  93. David says:

    I get migraines from chocolate (apparently it’s quite a common reaction). And I’m quite sure there has been an amazing amount of research (both formal and informal) into the benefits and pleasures it can induce.

    Are you suggesting that there needs to be more research into chocolate as well? Or just the things that cause migraine in *you* ?

    Guilty, I think you are, of sample-of-one-ism.

  94. Nat says:

    In this thread: A dozen different axes and four dozen grinders.

  95. Tim says:

    Aspartame 951 (NutraSweet, Equal)

    Aspartame is another excitotoxin and it took 20 years of lobbying and debate before it was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This was despite scientific data showing a link to the development of brain tumours in rats. One month after approval for use in soft drinks the FDA commissioner, Arthur Hayes Jr. M.D., became a senior consultant for Burson-Marsteller, the Public Relations firm that managed G.D Searle’s account.

    Aspartame is made up of methanol (10%), phenylalanine (50%) and aspartic acid (40%). Methanol breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde in the body. Formaldehyde is a deadly neurotoxin. While formic acid is found in the venom of bee and ant stings. Phenylalanine in excess can cause the serotonin levels in the brain to decrease leading to disorders such as depression.

    Free methanol is created from aspartame when it is heated to above 30° C such as in a coffee or in cooked items. This will also occur if soft drinks are not refrigerated all the time, such as during transport and during storage at the retailer. On 27 June 1996, without public notice, the FDA removed all restrictions from aspartame allowing it to be used in everything, including all heated and baked goods. Aspartame accounted for more than 75% of all adverse reactions reported to the US FDA’s Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS).

    Cyclamates 952 (Sucaryl; Sweetex)

    Cyclamates were banned in the USA and UK in 1969 however it is still used in Australia. A Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) survey in 2004 determined that the average consumer exceeded the acceptable daily intake.

    Saccharin 954

    In 1977, after a study indicating an increased rate of bladder cancer in rats, Canada banned saccharin while the US and other countries required a warning label on all saccharin products. In 2000 the labelling requirements were lifted.
    As the new NTP (National Toxicology Program) report explains: “Although it is impossible to absolutely conclude that it poses no threat to human health … saccharin is not reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen under conditions of general usage as an artificial sweeten.”

    Neotame 961

    Neotame has similar structure to aspartame – except that, from its structure, appears to be even more toxic than aspartame.

    Aspartame Reactions

    The FDA had to list notified reactions to aspartame under Freedom of Information. Of the 92, some are:

    ADD/ADHD Alzheimer’s Asthma Birth defects Brain cancer
    Chronic fatigue Death Depression Epilepsy Fibromyalgia
    Headaches/migraines Impotency Joint pains Memory loss Menstrual problems
    Nausea vomiting Palpitations Panic attacks Parkinson’s Weight gain

  96. Tim says:

    Here is another bit of possibly useful info:

    Avoiding Hidden Aspartame & Artificial Sweeteners

    Soft drinks, over-the-counter drugs & prescription drugs (very common and listed under “inactive ingredients”), vitamin & herb supplements, yogurt, instant breakfasts, lollies, breath mints, cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, cocoa mixes, coffee beverages, instant breakfasts, gelatine desserts, frozen desserts, juice beverages, laxatives, milk drinks, shake mixes, tabletop sweeteners, tea beverages, instant teas and coffees, topping mixes, wine coolers, etc.

    When you’re consuming MSG, the level of glutamate in the blood can rise as high as 20-fold. You get very high glutamate levels in the blood after eating a meal containing MSG. You’re stimulating all of the glutamate receptors. That’s why some people get explosive diarrhoea and dyspepsia, because it stimulates the receptors in the oesophagus and small bowel. Others may develop irritable bowel, or if they have irritable bowel, it makes it a lot worse. If they have reflux, it makes that a lot worse. The thing about the cardiac conduction system glutamate receptors is this may explain the rise in sudden cardiac death.

    What you see in almost all these cases is low magnesium. When the magnesium level is low, the glutamate receptors become hypersensitive, and so people – athletes in particular, if they are not supplementing with magnesium – are prone to sudden cardiac death, because of the glutamate receptors. If they eat a meal or something that contains glutamate or drink a diet cola before practice, it will produce such intense cardiac irritability; they’ll die of sudden cardiac death. We know the sudden cardiac death is due to two things: Most commonly arrhythmia and coronary artery spasm. Both of which can be produced by glutamate.

    ***Now for the kicker: Consume aspartame WITH MSG and the problems can be amplified, much like taking certain drugs with alcohol.

    Many people make the mistake of not checking labels carefully and continue to poison themselves.

  97. Paul says:

    Any references to your assertions would be appreciated. I note that Critical Reviews in Toxicology stated “The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”
    And Food and Chemical Toxicology notes that ” The available data therefore support the conclusions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that aspartame is non-genotoxic.”

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