The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the world’s most powerful drug watchdog, may finally be burying the hatchet with the public over the aspartame /diet soda health scare. New research suggests that long term use of products containing the artificial sweetener aspartame may affect short and long-term memory. This can have dramatic consequences for students.
Anecdotal evidence that aspartame disrupts memory has been growing since the sugar substitute was approved by the FDA in the early 1980s, though attempts to prove the claim have so far been equivocal. Previous studies have tested memory by asking aspartame users to remember details of personal routines or whether or not a task had been completed– tests of long-term memory.
But according to Timothy M. Barth, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Texas Christian University, those studies also suggested that short-term memory may also be affected.
In his study of 90 students, Barth found that participants who regularly drank diet sodas performed as well as nonusers on laboratory tests for long-term memory. However, users were more likely to report short-term memory lapses.
“These people aren’t crazy,” says Barth. “Instead, their brain chemistry may be under attack from prolonged aspartame use.”
After reporting his findings at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, Barth cautioned that aspartame might also effect long-term memory.
“Short-term memory is the very link to our long-term memory,” Barth said. “If that process is affected it will have greater effects on what is stored as long-term memory.”
Concordia Alumni Rodney West, a long time Coke drinker, switched to Diet Coke in 1990 because he wanted fewer calories. That, and long nights studying, eventually began to take its toll on his health and grades.
“I began suffering from bouts of depression and I went from being an A student to a B student in less than six months.”
A year ago Cynthia Duparquet swore off aspartame after guzzling two to three litres a day for the 11 previous years. “I started drinking Diet Coke as way to reduce calories,” the 36-year-old Concordia Alumna said.
“After two months I was having a hard time studying. I could not explain the sudden drop in my grades.”
Her complaints coincide with several Journal of New England studies between 1996-2001, that found a significant decrease in concentration was evident in aspartame users when compared to non-users.
Duparquet eventually dropped out of university but has since returned. She also cleaned out her fridge after reading several of those articles.
“Anything that had aspartame as an ingredient went out with the garbage,” she said. She’s been aspartame free for 13 months and boasts a 3.3 grade point average.
While the FDA has always denied that there is an Aspartame Epidemic, West cannot help thinking about how good he used to feel before 1988. Last month West received an e-mail that challenged him to take the 60-day aspartame free test. The challenge states that if he does not see any change after 60 days, then, as the author of the e-mail so bluntly put it, he could go back to killing himself.
West reports that he has been aspartame-free for 36 days. “I seem to feel less depressed in the last week,” he reports. West also reports that his ability to concentrate has increased. “I admit the test is unscientific, but I cannot dismiss how I feel.”
While aspartame is used in many products, including Pepsi-Cola, it is the Coca-Cola Company that has been subject to the brunt of protests, namely the 1998 Urban Legend and Folklore letter coining the term “aspartame disease.”
This specimen of email scarelore, in wide circulation since mid-December 1998, warns that aspartame (a.k.a. “NutraSweet” and “Equal”) is toxic to humans (just GoogleTM search “Aspartame Disease”). Today there are numerous allegations that aspartame causes headaches, disorientation, panic attacks, shooting pains in legs, numbness, heart palpitations, seizures, manic depression, dizziness, joint pain, blindness and now memory loss. In some cases, though not confirmed, death has occurred.
Most of the allegations in the urban legend letter contradict the bulk of medical evidence but its author offers a convenient explanation: collusion between aspartame’s manufacturers, the medical establishment, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
The FDA is not infallible or incorruptible, but the agency has common sense and years of accumulated research on its side when it maintains that the sweetener is safe for most people. The latest finding marks the first time the FDA have openly admitted that there may be a health risk linked to aspartame consumption.
Manufacturers, of course, have plenty to lose. Firms that hold exclusive rights to currently used sweeteners are extremely fearful of the advent of new, safer sweeteners, over which they will have no control. For these firms, the emergence of a totally natural, non-patentable sweetener is the ultimate financial horror.
As to aspartame’s critics, it doesn’t help their cause that the information presented in the email letter is disorganised, hysterical and poorly substantiated.
Former users like West and Duparquet have proven it to themselves. If you consume large amounts of aspartame and are experiencing some health problems take the 60-day challenge, and you judge for yourself.