Aspartame is a sugar substitute made from 50% phenylalanine, 40% Aspartic Acid and 10% Methanol (Wood alcohol). It is technically classified as a drug, not a food.
Let me start by sharing a personal experience, so you know why I have this information knocking around inside my brain in the first place.
Several months ago I was having a conversation with a friend about migraine headaches.
If you are one of those people who will go to work and sigh and say, “Ugh! I feel so terrible. I have had a migraine for three days now,” let me assure you that you have never actually had a real migraine. They will knock you on your butt like nothing else. I’ve had 2 babies, seen my knee cap pushed to the back of my leg, endured surgery and rehab on said knee…. NOTHING hurt like a migraine. I can’t open my eyes unless the room is nearly pitch black. Even the glow from a night-light feels like 1,000 needles in my brain. Sounds echo inside my skull. I can’t lie down because the pressure of my head against the pillow hurts so much it makes me vomit. I have crawled to the bathroom because I was too dizzy to walk.
Some people lose their ability to speak, see blinding “auras” around objects, have seizures, and more.
Migraines are really truly horrible on a level that is hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it.
His were severe enough and frequent enough that he had been on prescription medication to help prevent them. This medication was harsh and made him feel terrible, so it was a toss-up between which was more awful: the horrible headaches or the side effects from the drugs. Then he saw a different specialist who suggested that items containing phenylalanine may be a trigger for him. He cut out diet soda and a few other foods and almost immediately saw a dramatic decrease in the frequency of the headaches.
My New Year’s resolution had been to give up soda, especially Diet Coke, which I’d been drinking to excess.
During this conversation I thought, “That’s true! After an initial bout of horrible headaches and general misery in the 2 weeks after going “cold turkey” I haven’t had another migraine since!”
I have since cut Aspartame completely from my diet. It’s not hard to do IF you are aware that it is in a wide variety of products. It’s in SOME candy, gum, mints, yogurt, soda and more. But there are plenty of other varieties of candy, gum, yogurt, etc that do not contain it.
I used to have a migraine every 6-8 weeks or so. As of writing this, I haven’t had one in almost 9 months. Here’s hoping and praying I’ll never have another!
My friend and I are not alone. Despite the fact that there are some groups out there who claim that there is no definitive proof that Aspartame can be harmful, there are other studies that reach some startling conclusions.
The New England Journal of Medicine, a world-renowned medical journal, has conducted studies that have found a connection between heavy consumption of diet drinks sweetened with aspartame and migraine headaches. One study in particular seems heavily slanted toward finding a connection as those taking part reported having headaches on 33% of the days in which the study was conducted as opposed to the control group which reported headaches on only 24% of the days.
One scientist who has conducted research came to the startling conclusion that 90% of all migraines are caused by allergic reactions to food or food additives. His findings also suggest that aspartame is the most common food additive related to migraines. Another study came to an equally amazing conclusion that 10% of all migraines are related to aspartame consumption. A study conducted at the Univ. of Florida came to perhaps the most jaw-dropping conclusion of them all, finding that aspartame increased the frequency of migraine headaches in over fifty percent of the patients who took part in the study.
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So here’s the deal on Aspartame and Phenylalanine:
If you live in the US, you’ve probably noticed one thing or another that has, on the label, a warning that reads, “CAUTION PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE.” If you are like most people you had NO IDEA what this meant so you assumed it was directed toward someone else and ignored it.
Those are products that contain Aspartame and, you are probably right. Unless you are the less than 1% of the population that has been diagnosed with PKU (phenylketonuria), the warning is not for you. The warning is there because, for that <1%, the reaction is swift and potentially deadly. This disease is so serious that all newborns in this country are screened for it.
For the rest of us, phenylalanine is a safe, normal and necessary amino acid that occurs in almost any animal product as well as many nuts, and legumes, and some fruit. It is almost always in bread, pasta, cereal, cookies, and other products made from flour of any sort.
Some people actually take prescription phenylalanine supplements to treat a variety of disorders.
But, there are those, and some studies show that the numbers may be higher than originally thought, that don’t metabolize phenylalanine very quickly. For those people, it can accumulate in the system.
For pregnant women this is a very serious issue. Webmd says this:
Having too much phenylalanine in the mother’s system during pregnancy can increase the chances of birth defects. The risk for facial defects is highest at weeks 10-14, nervous system and growth defects between 3-16 weeks, and heart defects at 3-8 weeks. For women who process phenylalanine normally and have normal levels, it’s probably fine to get the amount of phenylalanine found in food, but not in higher doses. Don’t take supplements. For women who have high levels of phenylalanine, even normal food amounts are UNSAFE. Additionally, experts recommend a low phenylalanine diet for at least 20 weeks before getting pregnant. This should reduce the risk of birth defects.
Also affected are those on certain drugs including Levodopa, MAOIs, and antipsychotic drugs.
Diabetics need to be careful of this, especially since they are the most likely users of Aspartame as a sugar substitute. They can, and should, ask their doctors to monitor their levels.
Very young children tend to accumulate higher levels faster than older kids and adults.
So is Aspartame safe for the rest of us?
Remember that Phenylalanine is only 50%.
40% is Aspartic Acid (aspartate). Again, that is a part of a naturally occurring amino acid. Your body makes it, regardless of what you eat and it is necessary, in those amounts, to keep you healthy.