October 4, 2007 at 7:45 pm (Bad Science) (, , , , , , )


Here, Dr Briffa gives his personal opinion on aspartame:

“The companies that make it and ‘expert panels’ conclude it is safe. Yet, anecdotal reports on the web and elsewhere about that claim aspartame has the capacity to damage human health and cause symptoms that range from headaches and seizures and multiple-sclerosis type symptoms and depression.”

Anecdotal reports on the web make all sorts of claims. Are we elevating anecdote above evidence now Dr Briffa? There isn’t even a link in Briffa’s blog to these anecdotal claims (google brings up 200k results for ‘dangers of aspartame’ [googling], although one of these is snopes – myths are available for your delectation here) . He does provide references, but most of these seem to relate to the dangers of formaldehyde rather than aspartame itself.

“Once in the digestive tract, the body can digest aspartame down to its two amino acids, and the methyl groups ends up being spliced off to form something called methanol. This is crucially important as methanol (the prime constituent in methylated spirits) has toxic potential and may also be converted to formaldehyde (used for preserving dead bodies) within the body.” So Briffa seems to be saying that it is the methanol that is dangerous. I used the Quackometer ( QuackSafe Web Search Engine to look for information on methanol in fruit and found this: According to a letter to the Lancet quoted on Junk Science, “Although a 330 mL can of aspartame-sweetened soft drink will yield about 20 mg methanol, an equivalent volume of fruit juice produces 40 mg methanol, and an alcoholic beverage about 60-100 mg” and they make the point that “the amount of phenylalanine or methanol ingested from consumption of aspartame is trivial, compared with other dietary sources.” ACSH have a pdf available on sweeteners that includes the following: “Fruit juices contain substantial amounts of methanol; for example, apple juice has been reported to contain up to 88 milligrams per liter. This is not a reason to avoid apple juice, however. To obtain a fatal dose of methanol from apple juice, an individual would have to consume between 100 and 1000 quarts of the juice at a single sitting – an obviously absurd scenario.” ACSH. Skeptics dot com in Australia (Skeptics) write that “Volume for volume, tomato juice produces six times more methanol than does diet cola. I don’t get emails about the dangers of tomato juice.” I do hope that the Dr Briffa hasn’t fallen into the trap of “natural good, synthetic bad”.

Brilliantly, the first google ad on Briffa’s aspartame post is for, who link to reported concerns of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) relating to “anecdotal claims made by anti-aspartame campaigners about the sweetener [that] do not seem to be supported by actual evidence” as well as linking to the study Briffa is criticising and they also have a scientific library which includes an abstract of a study relating to methanol from aspartame and the formation of formate: ” Methanol concentrations were below the level of detection (0.4 mg/dl) in the blood of the 12 normal subjects who ingested aspartame at 34 mg/kg.” and “Blood formate analyses were carried out in the 6 subjects who ingested aspartame at 200 mg/kg, since recent studies indicate that the toxic effects of methanol are due to formate accumulation. No significant increase in blood formate concentrations over predosing concentrations was noted.” come from J Toxicol Environ Health. 1981 Feb;7(2):281-90. Blood methanol concentrations in normal adult subjects administered abuse doses of aspartame Stegink LD, Brummel MC, McMartin K, Martin-Amat G, Filer LJ Jr, Baker GL, Tephly TR. Here on the pro-aspartame website: methanol concentrations.

The review Dr Briffa is referring to is this one: Review. The Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) also published an opinion in 2002. PDF. Also available here: jdc’s upload.


  1. jonhw said,

    anecdotal reports on the web and elsewhere about that claim aspartame has the capacity to damage human health

    heh, I’ll see Briffa’s anecdote, and raise him one. Canola oil has horrible effects on the human body:

    A friend who worked for only 9 mo. as a quality control taster, at an apple-chip factory where Canola oil was used exclusively for frying, developed numerous health problems including loose teeth; gum disease, gum and nail beds turned gray; numb hands and feet with cramps, swollen arms and legs upon rising in the morning; extreme joint pain especially in hands; cloudy vision; constipation with stools like black marbles; hearing loss; skin tears from being bumped; lack of energy; hair loss; and heart pains. It has been five years since she has worked there and still has some joint pain, gum disease, and numbness. A fellow worker, about 30 yrs. old who ate very little product, had a routine check up and found that his blood vessels were like those of an 80 year old man. Two employees fed the waste product to baby calves and their hair fell out. After removing the fried apple chips from the diet their hair grew back in.

    Scientists might tell you that canola oil (rapeseed oil, as we call it here in Europe) is safe, but we all know that scientists feed poisonous waste to baby calves. And there’s lots more anecdotes about rapeseed oil on the Internet and elsewhere.

    Studies, pah. Who needs them with anecdotes like this…

  2. Dr* T said,

    My own perhaps twisted version of why “aspartame is bad” goes like this:

    Aspartame is present in lots of nasty drinks to reduce sugar. Mrs Middle Class sees those drinks as being ‘below her station’ – look what it does to the poor people. Must be because of one of the ingredients. What’s this aspartame? Sounds chemically. Can’t be good for you.

    Bad food is bad because it is full of bad chemicals, which are bad for you and science be damned.

  3. valueaddedwater said,

    I’m of the camp that I refuse to drink diet colas with Aspartame, not because they are bad for you, but they taste like crap.

    Full fat every time thank you very much

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: