In an effort to cut calories and lose weight, millions of women routinely reach for “sugar-free” packaged foods and “diet” sodas.  While avoiding added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is a good thing, just because a canned drink has a list of zeros down the side does not mean that it is “neutral” or problem free.

Diet sodas and over 6,000 other sugar-free and diet products contain the artificial sweetener aspartame, otherwise known as Equal.  This chemical is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has little “after-taste,” making it appealing to food manufacturers and consumers alike.

But you may have heard that there are animal studies that have raised questions about its safety.  And you may also have heard that pregnant women should “limit consumption.”

What you may not have heard is that there is a new human study linking it to cancer.    

Aspartame Cancer Risk

In a 22-year long human aspartame study done out of Harvard, involving over 125,000 men and women over age 20, a clear association was found between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and leukemia.

Men that drank more than one diet soda a day had an increased risk of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Leukemia was associated with diet soda intake in both men and women.

The beverage industry defends aspartame as being one of the most studied and safe food additives.  But the longest human aspartame study prior to this one was only four and a half months – far too short to determine safety, or reveal health risks.

Brain Damage

Also published this year, the findings from a rat study showed that chronic exposure to aspartame results in detectable levels of methanol in the blood, which may be responsible for oxidative stress in the brain.  Oxidative stress in the brain is a situation where damaging free radicals outnumber your antioxidant defenses, leading to brain cell death.

Aspartic acid, one of the amino acids in aspartame, can actually cross the blood-brain barrier, and attack your brain cells, leading to destruction of neurons.

Greater Weight Gain

In another new study published in October in the journal Appetite, aspartame and saccharine (Sweet’N Low) were found to cause greater weight gain that regular table sugar in adult rats, unrelated to caloric intake.

This fits with previous studies that have shown that artificial sweeteners interfere with the body’s ability  to understand how many calories it is consuming, leading to overindulgence.  It does this by messing with your hormones that influence energy balance, appetite and metabolism – ghrelin and leptin.

Here is a greatly simplified explanation:  Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and leptin (released from your fat cells) tells your brain when you are full.   What appears to happen is that when a person eats something artificially sweetened, your body knows the difference.  It knows there are no calories to deal with, so leptin is not released to trigger satiety.  And when leptin is not released, ghrelin continues to be released, causing us to eat more.  This leads to weight gain instead of loss.

Because of the mounting evidence that chemical sweeteners are more than just a bad idea, a growing number of women are making the choice to dump their diet-soda-sugar-free habit, and eliminate aspartame and artificial sweeteners from their homes.  Instead, they reach for honey, stevia or some other natural sweetener when needed.

I’d love to hear from you.  Share your comments below and tell me how you feel about aspartame and artificial sweeteners.