Aspartame – Is It Safe?

Read a paper, watch the news, spend 30 seconds looking into healthy eating and nutrition and you won’t have been able to avoid the debate that has been raging recently over the use and safety surrounding artificial sweeteners and one in particular, Aspartame.

However, after lots of testing, the European Food Safety Authority have decided that Aspartame is safe. Apparently, it’s not linked to cancer, it’s not dangerous and therefore, to quote the EFSA “Aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure”. Now, I am not a scientific boffin, nor am I a medical doctor able to comment at length on the EFSA’s report/findings and the overall safety surrounding the use of artificial sweeteners in our food but what I can do is tell my story, explain what happened to me.

Spend 5 minutes browsing the pages within the site, especially the anorexia page and you will realise that for nearly 3 years now I have been battling an eating disorder. Eating disorders are annoying things, they have this tendency to grab hold of you and refuse to let go. Warping your mind and your vision of reality in such a way that you start to question the rationale and sanity of basic everyday decisions. None more obvious than with food.

Coca cola & Diet Coke Cans

Why would someone eat the sugary, fat laden version when there is a low fat, low calorie version available instead? Why chose something that according to the numbers printed on the packet is worse for you in every department except, usually, price?

This was, and still is, a question that is repeated time and time again in my head. Repetition to the point that anorexia has conditioned my thinking to such an extent that I virtually cannot accept something that doesn’t come wrapped up in a low fat, artificially sweetened version anymore. My brain just can’t answer that question of why in any way that it finds acceptable.

The problem this creates is that to make low calorie, healthy, low fat marketed products you have to take out sugar, and that, virtually all the time, means taking out flavour. Therefore, the manufacturers need to add that sweetness, that flavour, back and that is where artificial sweeteners come into their own. After all, they are even marketed as “tasting like sugar without the calories”. And it’s their discovery and use that created the whole diet sector. But the word “diet” when it comes to food doesn’t mean it’ll actually help you lose weight, after all, eat an entire packet of “diet” chocolate digestives and you clothes will still get tighter, but it does mean that you can virtually guarantee an intake of artificial sweeteners. And sadly, when weight, body image and disordered eating is stealing your life with the power it has mine, your daily intake of artificial sweeteners goes through the roof.

But apparently they are safe…

Well, all I know is that as my weight tumbled and the reading on the scales got lower and lower, I started to change as a person. I became very snappy, rather abusive and would fly off the handle at the smallest thing. I was never physically aggressive but I would get wound up by everyday problems and issues that wouldn’t shouldn’t make any difference to my life but for some reason would push me over the edge. Then one day, while religiously exercising and listening to an audio book, the topic of Aspartame poisoning came up. The narrator started listing the symptoms: severe depression, irritability, aggression, anxiety, personality changes, insomnia and on it went. And while I rowed backwards and forwards, I suddenly realised I was listening to my exact personality described with virtually pinpoint accuracy.

Diet Low Calorie Products

Could artificial sweeteners really be doing this to me?

And so, I started to tear through the kitchen cupboards, through the foods, the drinks, anything I mentally allowed into my body I checked and suddenly, it became obvious, safe or not, the amount of Aspartame I consumed was high. It was very high. But this posed a major problem; when the only things you mentally allow yourself to eat is also potentially poisoning you, how do you stop? What to do you? What do you replace it with?

The obvious answer would be the full fat version, the “normal” foods but sadly I cannot do that. I still cannot accept or reason why you’d eat an adult product if the child’s version is available so to speak. They recommend you have 6g of salt a day. Eat a normal full fat, processed ready meal diet, as per the majority of the population and you’ll probably eat that in one or two meals and be closer to pushing 10g by the end of the day. If you want to live within the limits, you have to stick low calorie “light” products.

So I started to examine the ingredients lists of the products I would accept. There are after all, a multitude of different artificial sweeteners, there are over a dozen listed on Wikipedia alone, but the main 3, the ones you’ll find on predominantly on your supermarket shelves are: Aspartame, Sucralose and and the newest “natural” kid on the block Stevia.

And so, I planned an experiment. Consume nothing with Aspartame but Sulcralose and Stevia were OK. Out went Diet Coca Cola (£1.85) and in came Sainsburys Basic’s Diet Cola (17p). Robinson’s No Added Sugar fruit juice (£4) was replaced with the Sainsbury’s version (£1.50). And sadly, every little weight conscious snack: the healthy chocolate mousse, the lighter hot chocolate, the post lunch yogurt. It all had to go. The rules were simple – find a Sucralose version or forget it.

And this one change, the removal of Aspartame from my diet had a cataclysmic effect on my life. And unbelievable as it sounds, it happened virtually overnight. Within days of cutting all ties to Aspartame and only allowing consciously lower amounts of Sucralose into my body I became a different person. Suddenly, I was becoming “normal”. I was calmer, happy. No longer was I aggressive and snappy and my mood wouldn’t swing violently from pole to pole at the slightest drop of a hat, split drink or toast crumb on the floor. It was anything but scientific, and the results still in their infancy, but there was no doubt to me and those around me, I was more focused, I had more energy and I was a different person.

Surely this couldn’t all be down to just Aspartame though, could it?

The only way to tell was to let it back into my life and the easiest way to do that was through drink. And so, I started to drink Diet Coke again. And as quickly as things had improved things swung into darkness again. Without warning I became aggressive and snappy again. After even I small can of Diet Coke, I would go dizzy and light headed. Like I said, it’s not scientific, but the moment I consume even relatively small amounts of Aspartame nowadays my entire personality and physical condition change. To quote my mother “It’s obvious the moment you are on Aspartame”. But apparently it’s safe?

Doctors Weighing Scales

I cannot explain why Aspartame appears to have such a detrimental effect on me. It’s made even more confusing by the fact that for years, from childhood, I had drunk pints of Aspartame laden no added sugar drinks without any personality problems or physical effects to my mental health. Millions of people all over the globe drink it without issue every minute of every day. But like I said at the start, this is just my story and what happens to me, now, in May 2014. I can only assume that it’s something to do with my weight and the state of my body as it functions in virtual survival mode thanks to the ravishes of Anorexia. That it processes the lack of nutrients and lack of sugar/energy differently.

I don’t miss Aspartame, in fact, consciously avoiding it has made me realise not only how much of our proclaimed “healthy” food is naturally unbalanced but also, how badly my diet had swung into a word of processed rubbish in the name of “losing weight” and sadly, “improving body image”. There are times when avoiding it can be hard, there are only so many glasses of water down the pub you can handle before boredom and monotony set t, but honestly, right now with the way Aspartame effects me, I have no choice. I’d take a glass of water for the condition I am in now over a pint of Diet Coke and a panic attack at dirt on the carpet any day!

Posted on by 5WC in Opinion First Edition

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