In a recent poll conducted on HealthCentral.com, 75 percent of respondents voted that the artificial sweetener Aspartame does not cause Multiple Sclerosis (MS). But what about that other 25 percent? About one-third of these voters responded that aspartame did cause MS, while the remaining two-thirds of this group was unsure. Why does so much confusion exist in the field?
The story begins with the approval of aspartame, an artificial sweetener that appears in NutraSweet and Equal, among others. The FDA approved of the product in 1981, and within just a few years, the dangers of aspartame had begun to swirl.
By the mid 1990s, an email chain was passed around declaring that aspartame caused "multiple sclerosis-like symptoms" and systemic lupus. The email claimed that when aspartame was heated to a temperature over 86 degrees Farenheit, the substance becomes toxic and mimics MS symptoms. The report claimed that "people are being diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis in error," and that, instead the condition is methanol toxicity. In reference to lupus, the letter claimed that as few as three to four cans of Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi can cause the disease to appear. This letter spoke of the World Environmental Conference (which does not exist), cited a mysterious Dr. Episto and provides a fake quote from the American College of Physicians.
The letter also referenced a report by Dr. Russell L. Blaylock, MD, a legitimate neurosurgeon and author. His report, entitled Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (1994), appears to have been the inspiration for the above emails. Blaylock wrote an article, The Connection Between MS and Aspartame, which claimed that there was a link between the demyelination process and "excessive exposure" to excitotoxins (which supposedly comprises 40 percent of aspartame's chemical structure) at the site of the lesions.
However these claims have been debunked by numerous organizations, including both the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA first ruled positively in favor of aspartame during the approval process, stating that "aspartame was safe for use in foods."
In 1999, The Lancet published a letter from a diabetes clinic regarding concerns from patients surrounding aspartame. The response stated that the amount of "harmful" chemicals in a diet soda is trivial, especially in comparison to other foods, including an egg (three times more phenylalanine and methanol than a can of diet soda), a glass of milk (five times more), or a hamburger (nine times more). The journal also citeda study which concluded a person consuming up to 17 cans of diet soda per day to show "no evidence of toxic effects and no increase in concentrations" of the aforementioned chemicals.
In response to a 2006 television report from Lubbock, TX which questioned whether aspartame has an influence on multiple sclerosis, the FDA stated that, "More than three decades of research and 200 studies support the safety of aspartame. Its safety has been reaffirmed on numerous occasions by the FDA and by, among others, the American Medical Association, the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetic Association." In response to rumors that when MS patients were taken off aspartame, these patients saw MS symptoms diminish, Dr. Randolph Schiffer (Chairman of the Department of Neuro-Psychiatry at Texas Tech) declared the claims "absolutely not true."
In 2007, the FDA released a statement in response to a flawed European study which painted aspartame as a carcinogen, firmly declaring that, "[We] have identified significant shortcomings in the design, conduct, reporting, and interpretation of this study. FDA finds that the reliability and interpretation of the study outcome is compromised by these shortcomings and uncontrolled variables."
Over a decade has passed since The Lancet summarily dismissed the rumors of an MS-Aspartame connection. The Internet has also changed quite a bit in the last 10 years, and the impact of an Internet hoax is quickly dispelled in today's fast-moving consumer society. It is still wise to always consult a medical professional before drawing conclusions when performing medical research online.