Aspartame Side Effects and Insulin Response: Is It Bad for You?

article based on scientific studies

Aspartame | Safe | Bad | Insulin Response | Side Effects | Conclusion | FAQ | Studies

After even conventional wisdom had to admit that soda pop could not be healthy due to the sugar content, sweeteners experienced an ongoing high.

Many people reach for zero and diet versions of their favorite soft drinks because they contain hardly any carbohydrates or calories.

Whether the side effects of aspartame in these drinks are less harmful than sugar is what this article tries to find out based on actual science.

Is Aspartame Bad for You?

As a decades-old ingredient in diet soda, aspartame, or additive number E951 on European food labels, is probably the best-known sweetener.

It is a sugar-free and low-calorie artificial sweetener.

Moreover, the sweetener is indispensable in the light and zero drinks of most global manufacturers. You can also find aspartame as an ingredient in the following packaged sweeteners:

  • Equal
  • Nutrasweet
  • Saccharin
  • Splenda
  • Sucralose
  • Sweet n’ Low

With this in mind, aspartame is also probably the most widely used synthetic sweetener of all.

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Is Aspartame Safe?

The reason aspartame is often considered harmful is that numerous studies have linked the sweetener to potential dangers.

Here is a sampling of those problems associated with aspartame:

In addition to these potential long-term side effects, let’s have a look at what the consumption of aspartame might be causing in our bodies in the short-term.

Is Aspartame Bad for Health?

After consumption, aspartame breaks down into three chemical compounds, the first two of which are amino acids (Humphries et al. 20089):

  • Aspartic acid
  • Phenylalanine
  • Methanol

While phenylalanine in natural foods such as soybeans, peas, or pumpkin seeds is considered safe by most health authorities, it can be toxic in large doses.

And it’s diet soda in particular that can put large amounts of phenylalanine into the body.

Since the amino acid phenylalanine is chemically bound in aspartame, the human body can absorb it quickly.

Due to its ability to convert to free methanol under elevated temperatures, the third chemical compound in aspartame is exceptionally problematic.

Once it is in this state, methanol can easily convert to formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen that can cross the blood-brain barrier, a filter made of capillaries that transport blood to the brain and spinal cord.

Therefore, researchers conclude that aspartame consumption may be harmful because of its contribution to the formation of formaldehyde adducts (Trocho et al. 199810).

For this reason, drinking zero and light beverages may be more of a concern than we thought. Is aspartame, therefore, possibly more harmful than sugar itself?

In the end, most people consume sweeteners because they want to lose weight. I have always wondered why so many overweight people drink diet coke.

Did they start drinking diet beverages only after gaining weight, or perhaps they gained weight because of diet sodas?

To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at that hormone responsible for weight gain – the storage hormone insulin.

aspartame in diet coke can cause side effects

Does Aspartame Cause a Bad Insulin Response?

Nowadays, researchers can predict about 75% of overweight people’s gain and loss with insulin levels (Kong et al. 201311).

Ultimately, the storage hormone has the task of storing supplied energy your body doesn’t consume right away.

Against this background, it quickly becomes apparent that it is therefore not only blood glucose that matters. Although a glucose spike stimulates insulin secretion, it is by no means the just possible cause.

That’s why losing weight is not just about sugar or calories – a small but game-changing fact state of the art diets such as the ketogenic diet take into account.

Instead, high insulin levels pave the way for fat gain.

With numerous studies concluding that artificial sweeteners are a cause rather than a countermeasure of the current obesity epidemic, we need to look at their effect on the storage hormone (Fowler et al. 200812).

Aspartame vs. Sugar – What’s the Bad Option?

Aspartame is the classic sweetener in diet soda. Unlike sugar, it provides virtually no carbohydrates or calories.

Therefore, aspartame cannot raise blood sugar levels as abruptly as sugar. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the artificial sweetener can’t raise insulin levels.

With this in mind, one study concluded that aspartame could raise insulin levels more than regular table sugar.

Thirty minutes after consumption, the meal sweetened by aspartame caused an absolute peak insulin level that could not be reached by table sugar (Anton et al. 201013).

According to this study, among other potential side effects, this sweetener prevents fat burning.

Furthermore, this means that beverages sweetened with aspartame can break a fast due to their insulin response.

However, even more impressive is that a recent study found the average increase in insulin and blood glucose levels over three hours to be the same with aspartame as sugar consumption (Tey et al. 201714).

Thus, traditional diet sodas do not even provide the hoped-for benefit for blood glucose regulation in the long term.

Apart from the advantage of not containing fructose, aspartame is also as harmful as sugar in this comparison.

Aspartame vs. Stevia – Is Natural Better?

Mainly since stevia is extracted from a plant, sugar- and calorie-free, this sweetener is praised at the moment. Nevertheless, like table sugar, it is highly processed and refined from a plant source

Therefore, the legitimate question arises whether green soda drinks are a better alternative to conventional diet soda.

Based on a well-known study, people repeatedly claim that stevia does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels.

Table sugar indeed causes much higher glucose and insulin spikes immediately after consumption. Moreover, the same values are also slightly higher with aspartame compared to stevia.

But even this much-cited study shows that the values change after about 90 minutes. From this point on, blood glucose and insulin levels are higher after stevia consumption than after that of sugar or aspartame (Anton et al. 201015).

In contrast to this study, a more recent study compared these sweeteners’ effects over three hours instead of just two hours.

Also, the subjects in this study consumed sweetened beverages, not meals. The researchers found no significant differences between table sugar, stevia, and aspartame over three hours.

Although sugar initially caused higher responses, stevia’s insulin production could catch up throughout the three hours and match overall insulin levels.

It is also perplexing to note that blood glucose levels also increased in the same proportion. Ultimately, no difference existed on average between sugar, aspartame, and stevia for this value either (Tey et al. 201716).

The bottom line is that stevia may have a small advantage over aspartame and conventional sugar due to lower initial spikes. Still, the natural sweetener is also far from ideal for weight loss.

Aspartame vs. Sucralose – Are Both Bad?

Besides aspartame, there are two ubiquitous artificial sweeteners: acesulfame-K and sucralose.

They both provide no carbohydrates, proteins, or calories.

Sucralose is a significant compound in Splenda, a sweetener sold in the form of sugar-like pink packets. You’ll also find sucralose among ingredients by its E-number, 955, on food labels.

A study published in the journal Diabetes Care compared drinking water with and without sucralose.

The oral intake of the sweetened beverage increased the test subjects’ insulin levels by up to 50 percent (Pepino et al. 201317).

Thus, this synthetic sweetener also has a significant effect on insulin production. But what makes sucralose just as harmful as aspartame is its impact on gut health.

According to research, a single packet of the sucralose-based sweetener Splenda is enough to wipe out 50 percent of the healthy gut microbiome (Abou-Donia et al. 200818).

With this in mind, it is even more perplexing that even the supposedly natural sweetener stevia can negatively impact your gut health (Ruiz-Ojeda et al. 201919).

artificial sweeteners like aspartame can be harmful

Aspartame vs. Aceulfame Potassium

The more heat-resistant sweetener acesulfame potassium or short acesulfame-K with the E-number 950 is a standard part of commercially available beverages.

It is usually found together with aspartame in zero-, zero-sugar, or zero sports beverages. Although acesulfame-K is also calorie-free and sugar-free, it also stimulates insulin secretion.

In this context, researchers have even found that acesulfame potassium increases insulin levels to the same extent as the same amount of glucose (Liang et al. 198720).

For this reason, sugar-free does not automatically mean healthy. Against this background, zero drinks are eventually not better than diet soda.

Aspartame is usually found in both variants anyway.

Aspartame Side Effects

Although it may sound controversial in principle that a sugar-free, low-carbohydrate soda could be worse for you than classic soda, there are probably good reasons for this.

Studies that have examined the effect of aspartame on individual diseases show the dangers it can pose to health.

Is Aspartame Bad for Heart Health?

Cardiovascular diseases are currently the top cause of death throughout the Western world.

Moreover, problematic cardiovascular health is precisely prevalent in those countries that consume masses of diet soda. Therefore, it is not far-fetched that sweeteners could contribute to this outcome.

With this in mind, the Women’s Health Initiative observed 59,614 women over 8.7 years. The results showed that those who drank two or more diet sodas per day developed a 30 percent higher risk of cardiovascular events (ACC 201421).

Accordingly, a University of Miami study also showed a 43 percent increase in strokes and heart attacks from regularly drinking diet drinks (Gardener et al. 201222).

Can Aspartame Worsen Diabetes?

Artificial sweeteners can also affect metabolism.

If the brain is waiting for sweet taste and, therefore, glucose, but you consume a low-calorie sweetener, this can spur cravings for sweets even more (Yang 201023).

For this reason, long-term consumption of intense artificial sweeteners can cause metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes (Swithers 201324).

Accordingly, the Framingham Heart Study also states that the likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome is about 50 percent higher among consumers of diet beverages (Dhingra et al. 200725).

Aspartame and Cancer – How Bad Is It?

Cancer is another disease of uncontrolled growth that continuously plagues our Western society. When we talk about aspartame, there is a prevalent opinion that this sweetener can cause cancer.

Against the backdrop of aspartame’s reckless consumption over the past 30 years, researchers have studied the connection between the sweetener and cancer.

However, like other researchers, they did not find a direct link to increased cancer risk (Haighton et al. 201926).

Can Aspartame Cause Mental Side Effects?

In contrast to cancer research, the results of studies that looked at mental health came to more concerning conclusions.

Accordingly, one study showed that the risk of depression was increased in those who drank diet soda instead of regular soda (Guo et al. 201427).

Additionally, another study found that people with mood swings are susceptible to aspartame and should therefore rather avoid it (Walton et al. 199328).

Also, aspartame can increase both the stress hormone cortisol and free radicals in the body.

Since this fact increases the brain’s susceptibility to oxidative stress, aspartame may negatively affect neurological health (Choudhary et al. 201829).

Kidneys and the Dangers of Aspartam

There are other findings that we might not have suspected in the context of diet drinks.

For example, researchers studied the kidney function of 3,318 women concerning sweetener consumption.

As a result, just two diet sodas per day could double the decline in women’s healthy kidney function (Lin et al. 201130).

For this additional reason, diet soda is not only unhealthy but most likely more harmful than sugar-sweetened beverages.

Can You Consume Diet Soda While Pregnant?

With many women wondering if aspartame is allowed in pregnancy due to potential dangers, let’s make an initial summary at this point.

Since the possible health problems that aspartame can bring can already be problematic for any healthy person, it is probably not a good idea to affect a second and fragile life.

Aspartame Can Be Bad for You

If you summarize scientific findings or even simple statistics, you have to conclude that aspartame can’t help you lose weight.

Likewise, serious concerns arise towards the standard sweetener in metabolism, heart health, kidney disease, mental health, or even neurodegenerative diseases.

Yes, aspartame has been used worldwide for over 30 years. However, the extent of the diseases as mentioned above has significantly increased over this period.

The side effects of aspartame and diet soda have probably played their part in this development.

Is Aspartam Bad for You FAQ

Is aspartame bad for you?

Aspartame can harm metabolism, heart health, or even kidneys.

Is aspartame poisoning?

Aspartame is not a neurotoxin. However, aspartame consumption can be harmful to the brain due to its contribution to the formation of formaldehyde adducts.

Where is aspartame found?

You can find aspartame in zero and diet drinks 🥤 and sweeteners 🍬 such as Splenda or Nutrasweet.

Can aspartame cause cancer?

In contrast to other side effects, science has not yet proven that aspartame is carcinogenic.

Studies

#1-8

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2Choudhary AK, Lee YY. Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?. Nutr Neurosci. 2018 Jun;21(5):306-316. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. Epub 2017 Feb 15. Review. PubMed PMID: 28198207.

3Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep;24(9):431-41. doi: 10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005. Epub 2013 Jul 10. PubMed PMID: 23850261; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3772345.

4Camfield PR, Camfield CS, Dooley JM, Gordon K, Jollymore S, Weaver DF. Aspartame exacerbates EEG spike-wave discharge in children with generalized absence epilepsy: a double-blind controlled study. Neurology. 1992 May;42(5):1000-3. doi: 10.1212/wnl.42.5.1000. PubMed PMID: 1579221.

5Ciappuccini R, Ansemant T, Maillefert JF, Tavernier C, Ornetti P. Aspartame-induced fibromyalgia, an unusual but curable cause of chronic pain. Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2010 Nov-Dec;28(6 Suppl 63):S131-3. Epub 2010 Dec 22. PubMed PMID: 21176433.

6Gardener H, Rundek T, Markert M, Wright CB, Elkind MS, Sacco RL. Diet soft drink consumption is associated with an increased risk of vascular events in the Northern Manhattan Study. J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Sep;27(9):1120-6. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1968-2. Epub 2012 Jan 27. PubMed PMID: 22282311; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3514985.

7Dhingra R, Sullivan L, Jacques PF, Wang TJ, Fox CS, Meigs JB, D’Agostino RB, Gaziano JM, Vasan RS. Soft drink consumption and risk of developing cardiometabolic risk factors and the metabolic syndrome in middle-aged adults in the community. Circulation. 2007 Jul 31;116(5):480-8. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.689935. Epub 2007 Jul 23. PubMed PMID: 17646581.

8Abhilash M, Sauganth Paul MV, Varghese MV, Nair RH. Long-term consumption of aspartame and brain antioxidant defense status. Drug Chem Toxicol. 2013 Apr;36(2):135-40. doi: 10.3109/01480545.2012.658403. Epub 2012 Mar 2. PubMed PMID: 22385158.

#9-14

9Humphries P, Pretorius E, Naudé H. Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;62(4):451-62. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866. Epub 2007 Aug 8. Review. PubMed PMID: 17684524.

10Trocho C, Pardo R, Rafecas I, Virgili J, Remesar X, Fernández-López JA, Alemany M. Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo. Life Sci. 1998;63(5):337-49. doi: 10.1016/s0024-3205(98)00282-3. PubMed PMID: 9714421.

11Kong LC, Wuillemin PH, Bastard JP, Sokolovska N, Gougis S, Fellahi S, Darakhshan F, Bonnefont-Rousselot D, Bittar R, Doré J, Zucker JD, Clément K, Rizkalla S. Insulin resistance and inflammation predict kinetic body weight changes in response to dietary weight loss and maintenance in overweight and obese subjects by using a Bayesian network approach. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Dec;98(6):1385-94. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.058099. Epub 2013 Oct 30. PubMed PMID: 24172304.

12Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Aug;16(8):1894-900. doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.284. Epub 2008 Jun 5. PubMed PMID: 18535548.

13Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010 Aug;55(1):37-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009. Epub 2010 Mar 18. PubMed PMID: 20303371; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2900484.

14Tey SL, Salleh NB, Henry J, Forde CG. Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. Int J Obes (Lond). 2017 Mar;41(3):450-457. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2016.225. Epub 2016 Dec 13. PubMed PMID: 27956737.

#15-21

15Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010 Aug;55(1):37-43. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2010.03.009. Epub 2010 Mar 18. PubMed PMID: 20303371; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2900484.

16Tey SL, Salleh NB, Henry J, Forde CG. Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. Int J Obes (Lond). 2017 Mar;41(3):450-457. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2016.225. Epub 2016 Dec 13. PubMed PMID: 27956737.

17Pepino MY, Tiemann CD, Patterson BW, Wice BM, Klein S. Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load. Diabetes Care. 2013 Sep;36(9):2530-5. doi: 10.2337/dc12-2221. Epub 2013 Apr 30. PubMed PMID: 23633524; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3747933.

18Abou-Donia MB, El-Masry EM, Abdel-Rahman AA, McLendon RE, Schiffman SS. Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008;71(21):1415-29. doi: 10.1080/15287390802328630. PubMed PMID: 18800291.

19Ruiz-Ojeda FJ, Plaza-Díaz J, Sáez-Lara MJ, Gil A. Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. Adv Nutr. 2019 Jan 1;10(suppl_1):S31-S48. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmy037. PubMed PMID: 30721958; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6363527.

20Liang Y, Steinbach G, Maier V, Pfeiffer EF. The effect of artificial sweetener on insulin secretion. 1. The effect of acesulfame K on insulin secretion in the rat (studies in vivo). Horm Metab Res. 1987 Jun;19(6):233-8. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1011788. PubMed PMID: 2887500.

21American College of Cardiology. Too many diet drinks may spell heart trouble for older women, study suggests. ScienceDaily. 2014 Mar 29; Retrieved 2019 Oct 9 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140329175110.html

#22-28

22Gardener H, Rundek T, Markert M, Wright CB, Elkind MS, Sacco RL. Diet soft drink consumption is associated with an increased risk of vascular events in the Northern Manhattan Study. J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Sep;27(9):1120-6. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1968-2. Epub 2012 Jan 27. PubMed PMID: 22282311; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3514985.

23Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8. Review. PubMed PMID: 20589192; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2892765.

24Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep;24(9):431-41. doi: 10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005. Epub 2013 Jul 10. PubMed PMID: 23850261; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3772345.

25Dhingra R, Sullivan L, Jacques PF, Wang TJ, Fox CS, Meigs JB, D’Agostino RB, Gaziano JM, Vasan RS. Soft drink consumption and risk of developing cardiometabolic risk factors and the metabolic syndrome in middle-aged adults in the community. Circulation. 2007 Jul 31;116(5):480-8. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.689935. Epub 2007 Jul 23. PubMed PMID: 17646581.

26Haighton L, Roberts A, Jonaitis T, Lynch B. Evaluation of aspartame cancer epidemiology studies based on quality appraisal criteria. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2019 Apr;103:352-362. doi: 10.1016/j.yrtph.2019.01.033. Epub 2019 Feb 2. Review. PubMed PMID: 30716379.

27Guo X, Park Y, Freedman ND, Sinha R, Hollenbeck AR, Blair A, Chen H. Sweetened beverages, coffee, and tea and depression risk among older US adults. PLoS One. 2014;9(4):e94715. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094715. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 24743309; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3990543.

28Walton RG, Hudak R, Green-Waite RJ. Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population. Biol Psychiatry. 1993 Jul 1-15;34(1-2):13-7. doi: 10.1016/0006-3223(93)90251-8. PubMed PMID: 8373935.

#29-30

29Choudhary AK, Lee YY. Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?. Nutr Neurosci. 2018 Jun;21(5):306-316. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1288340. Epub 2017 Feb 15. Review. PubMed PMID: 28198207.

30Lin J, Curhan GC. Associations of sugar and artificially sweetened soda with albuminuria and kidney function decline in women. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan;6(1):160-6. doi: 10.2215/CJN.03260410. Epub 2010 Sep 30. PubMed PMID: 20884773; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3022238.

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