Sugar Substitutes: Healthy or Deadly?

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"Why do things taste so good? I'm telling you why, NutraSweet is why…" So went the song in a 1990 television advertisement.

The video backed it up with images of family fun, male bonding, and cute kids - all consuming or presumably on the verge of drinking a diet soda. Sweeteners like aspartame would usher in an era of thin and happy.

Barry Sears, the biochemist who came up with the Zone diet, says it's not that simple.

"We now know data from Harvard Medical School in children who consume diet sodas gain weight," Sears told CBN News. "Well, how can that be? There are you know, no calories."

Increase Obesity?

Sears is far from alone in noting that more and more research shows that this empty sweetness makes the body expect food. When it doesn't arrive, you actually get hungrier. He explains in simple terms that the more sugar-free soft drinks you drink, the fatter you become.

And not only may artificial sweeteners - found in a staggering number of grocery products - increase obesity, but many experts say they're bad for you in other ways. That could be demonstrated in your own kitchen by pouring an aspartame-based diet soda into a hot pan.

The heat simulates what your body does when you consume aspartame - breaking it down into toxic formaldehyde. But don't try this as it could give you a migraine.

Other Potential Health Risks

Food scientist Woodrow Monte explains that the aspartame molecule contains a precursor to formaldehyde: methyl alcohol. An enzyme found in the circulation of the brain, eye tissue, and breast cells converts this alcohol into formaldehyde.

Monte says that means, for instance, an increased risk of breast cancer. He has a chart showing how breast cancer has risen right along with the increased use of aspartame.

That conversion into formaldehyde could also mean multiple sclerosis. With MS, the body attacks the nervous system and scars in the brain. The symptoms of MS track closely those of methyl alcohol poisoning in Europe decades ago.

Methyl alcohol, also called wood alcohol or methanol, was once thought safe. However the substance was actually a major cause of death and blindness during Prohibition. It was found in contaminated or poorly made ethanol products such as bathtub gin.

Effect On the Brain

Plus there's concern about the effect on the brain. A recent Chinese study found that extremely low doses of formaldehyde damage the brain's memory proteins.

"It could start changing its structure, the way it folds and start producing strange misformations and malformations," Monte described. "Those are the same kind of malformations found in Alzheimer's disease."

After the Food and Drug Administration approved aspartame in 1981, Monte wrote of his concerns that the sweetener might cause one or more of the big three: cancer, genetic damage, and birth defects. Monte said it would take more testing.

"Well, now we do know the answer to all three of those questions is yes, yes, and yes," he said.

Click the player to watch CBN News' Gailon Totheroh's report, plus Pat Robertson's insights on the effects of Aspartame.

Recently when European researchers found a significant cancer connection, the government still wouldn't budge. 

The agency stated, "FDA finds no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food."

Yet the International Agency for Research on Cancer now names formaldehyde - produced in the body by aspartame - as definitely causing cancer. It's in their most dangerous category along with arsenic and plutonium.

Splenda & Saccharin

Geologist and environmental engineer Janet Starr Hull says aspartame caused her potentially fatal thyroid disease in the early 90s. She wrote the book Sweet Poison describing her affliction and recovery.

And her experiences motivated her to investigate the 1998 FDA approval of another artificial sweetener in 1998. That's Splenda, also known as sucralose.

Hull earned a doctorate in nutrition and wrote another book, Splenda: Is it Safe or Not? She warns about this sweetener as well.

"Everything that we had warned about aspartame, please don't do it," she said. "Don't give it to your child. Don't use it during pregnancy. Don't give it to the elderly or the sick. We're having to say the same thing about Splenda," Hull explained.

The FDA says it's perfectly safe. The agency looked at 110 studies in humans and animals and came to this conclusion: "Many of the studies were designed to identify possible toxic effects including carcinogenic, reproductive and neurological effects. No such effects were found," the agency wrote.

Hull disagrees about what those studies found many problems including cancer.

"And in the laboratory, the mice had hind leg paralysis," she recalled. "The male rats had infertility issues and the female rats had aborted fetuses and problems during pregnancy."

Her doubts about Splenda focus on the fact that it's manufactured from regular sugar by adding three chlorine atoms. "How much chlorine - how much do you consume every day?" she asked. "Do you consume your swimming pool? Do you drink that water when you swim?"

Hull claims the more you use, the more you lose. She say there are potential asthma and breathing difficulties, sinus issues, bladder afflictions, and kidney problems.

Again the government says there's no problem, because the body can't even digest Splenda. Hull disagrees.

"They're even saying in some Japanese studies it can digest up to 27 percent," she told CBN News. "So what you're looking at, is the body really is going to break this down into chlorine."

With serious concerns about Splenda and aspartame, what about saccharin? After all, it used to carry a cancer warning. In the 1980s, aspartame products advertised "No Saccharin."

Saccharin: Won't Break Down into Chemicals

However, saccharin has been around for more than a hundred years. It's the only artificial sweetener Monte will use because it won't break down into threatening chemicals. Still, he uses it sparingly.

As a scientist who has long studied the effects of what we eat, Monte is concerned.

"If we make food that doesn't taste good, taste good - whether through sweetness or through artificial flavorings, is that a good thing to do?," he reasoned. "We're fooling our bodies. You don't want to fool nature."

With the continuing concerns about artificial sweeteners, experts say natural sweeteners in moderation may be the best option for health-conscious consumers.

*Originally aired on October 22, 2008.

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Gailon Totheroh

Gailon Totheroh

CBN News Science and Medical Reporter

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