Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer

I previously reported on the issue of aspartame and brain tumours in April last year. Now, according to an item in The Times on May 6, aspartame, the artificial sweetener is not a cancer risk factor.

The article discusses the rejection by the European Union’s food safety watchdog of a study that links aspartame to ill health. At a time, when UK universities seem to be closing chemistry departments left, right, and centre, it comes as no surprise to note that this 660-word article doesn’t once mention what aspartame actually is. It alludes to its health effects at high does, stating that 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight is the acceptable daily intake (ADI), and that an adult would have to drink 14 cans of sugar-free drink every day before reaching the ADI [I assume what they mean by sugar-free drink is diet cola or similar, rather than tap water!].

The item goes on to cite concerns made by others that aspartame could nevertheless trigger other problems such as haemmorhaging in the eye and type II diabetes. But, still no mention of what it is.

Surely, any discussion of the health effects of a chemical, should at least tell you what that chemical is in more explicit terms than giving its “trivial” name. Anyway, aspartame is aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester, and is the methyl ester of the dipeptide of the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

Now, we’re getting somewhere. Phenylalanine is definitely a problem for a very small proportion of the population who suffer from phenylketonuria, so they must avoid it. The rest of us are okay with ingesting this amino acid, ditto aspartic acid.

So, from where might this toxicity arise?

Perhaps it’s the methylene bridge between the two amino acids that leads to the problem? Once past the tongue and into the stomach this bridge is breached releasing a tiny amount of methanol side product. So, could it be this compound that causes the problems? Some authorities think not, others are concerned, and yet others are convinced that it’s the aspartame structure as a whole that is the problem.