Nov 15 2016

Aspartame and GMOs

aspartameStories take on a life of their own. That is the origin of urban legends, myths, and even religion. A good narrative feeds on itself and can be self-sustaining. It evolves and adapts and finds fertile ground in most human hosts (unless they have been inoculated with a sufficient dedication to facts and logic).

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was approved by the FDA in 1981, has been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. The “holistic medicine” and “natural health” subcultures have largely been responsible for spreading misinformed hysteria about aspartame, first through chain letters and newsletters, and now through the internet.

Ever adapting, they have added some new wrinkles to the legend of aspartame, making sure that their baseless fearmongering is making use of the latest buzzwords.

Aspartame is Safe

First for some background, the anti-aspartame brigade claims that this food additive has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and a long list of complaints and diseases. They are simply lying, or the equivalent of lying by cherry picking data, dismissing evidence out-of-hand, and making up whatever claims they need to support their position.

I reviewed the evidence for the safety of aspartame and it is very conclusive. Multiple independent systematic reviews over decades have found no evidence linking aspartame to cancer or any serious illness. A 2007 review found:

The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

A 2015 review looking specifically at genotoxicity found:

The available data therefore support the conclusions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that aspartameis non-genotoxic.

Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives that exists (see my SBM link above for a more thorough review of the evidence). This is not just my conclusion, but the conclusion of 90 countries around the world who have also reviewed the scientific evidence.  The American Cancer Society, the European Food Safety Authority, and other independent medical and scientific organizations have all come to the same conclusion.

The EFSA is very significant, because they launched a reanalysis of all data related to aspartame safety in 2012. They looked at all the published and unpublished data they could, on aspartame and its breakdown products, with complete transparency. They found no evidence of any health risk from aspartame.

The bottom line is that the world has looked and relooked at all the data regarding aspartame, with complete transparency, and have come to the clear consensus conclusion that aspartame is safe at the levels used by consumers.

This does not fit the anti-aspartame urban legend narrative, however. So how do the “natural health” gurus respond?

Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responded to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:

I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.

When the evidence does not go your way, invoke a conspiracy. Conveniently, you don’t need evidence for a conspiracy, because it’s a conspiracy.

Some New Twists

Once you are disconnected from reality there is nothing to hold you back from weaving new details into your narrative. This might be especially true of the conspiracy mind set, which is all about seeing hidden connections.

Lying about the scientific evidence is a fun and lucrative career for the likes of Hull her ilk, but I guess that can get stale after a while so new scare tactics are always welcome. One of the latest aspects of the anti-asparttame narrative is that aspartame is being renamed to further deceive consumers. The Natural Society writes:

This one substance has continually been shown to cause harm to human health, so why is the FDA renaming it instead of banning it completely from the food supply?

It amazes me how childish the narrative often is. There is a complete disregard for facts and accuracy, as reality is distorted through the strong filter of their narrative. The FDA has nothing to do with the naming or brand name products. Further, aspartame is not being “renamed.”

Aspartame is the generic name for the food additive. It has always been marketed under a number of different brand names from different manufacturers, including NutraSweet and Equal.

The “new” name, which is not actually new, is AminoSweet. This is simply the brand name of the Japanese manufacturer of aspartame, Ajinomoto. That’s it. Aspartame is no longer patented, so different companies can manufacture it, and they can use whatever brand name they want.

Janet Hull, still beating her anti-aspartame drum, “reveals” what she considers to be an attempt at deception and asks her readers, “Are YOU fooled?” You mean by reading your conspiracy-laden nonsense? This is a good example of how the innocent every day workings of the world can be made to seem sinister once you buy into the conspiracy filter.

The anti-aspartame narrative is now making use of anti-GMO hysteria. The Natural Society also writes:

This substance is made using genetically modified bacteria in the US, but according to a Monsanto source, the UK market does not have to eat genetically modified bacteria excrement.

There is a lot to unpack here, but let me focus on a couple of important points. The first is the claim that aspartame is made with GM bacteria. Many sites claim this is GM E.coli, which is simply incorrect.

Aspartame is made from a combination of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are the building blocks of proteins. These amino acids are mass produced by bacteria, B. flavum and C. glutamicum. These species may or may not be genetically modified.

It is incorrect to say that this is bacterial “excrement” or “feces” as many sites do. Bacteria don’t have feces. They have metabolism, of course, and there are byproducts of that metabolism. People have been using the byproducts of microorganism metabolism for thousands of years, in many foods including: bread, yogurt, wine, beer, cheese, vinegar, meats, chocolate, coffee, tea, tofu, ice cream, mayo, fish, sausage, pickles, olives, butter, juices, and many more.

It is beyond absurd to now try to invoke a “yuck” disgust factor because some amino acids are sourced from bacteria.

This is also a good example of the genetic fallacy, or judging something because of its origin. It does not matter where the amino acids come from, their chemical structure is the same. All that matters is the health effects of the final product, that’s it.


Aspartame remains a completely safe and extremely well studied food additive. However, it has become the focus of internet conspiracies, mainly from the “natural product and health” market who promote their products by fearmongering about perfectly safe foods and ingredients.

Their latest propaganda claims that because a Japanese company has their own brand of aspartame this is somehow equal to the FDA “renaming” aspartame in order to fool the public.

They are now also jumping on the anti-GMO bandwagon, and trying to convince the public that “bacteria excrement” not only is a real thing, but it is something yucky that should be avoided (good luck avoiding anything to do with fermentation, by the way).

Their arguments are transparently absurd, factually challenged, and logically invalid.


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