This last month there have been quite a few articles in the media regarding artificial sweetener. Much of the information has been on the negative side. Some has been defending the artificial substances. I have an opinion for what it is worth. The opinion is, I do not know.

Artificial sweeteners are basically substitutes for sugar. These are found in many products. They are much sweeter than traditional sugar without the caloric load. Diet colas, cereals, and many processed foods contain artificial sweeteners. They may taste good and have few calories, but there are risks.

Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Our brain likes sugar and many with susceptible genetics can become addicted to sugar. We need more and more sweetness to keep the pleasure pathways in the brain happy. Our bodies want to feel good. Our receptors down regulate and we need more sugar to make the dopamine and natural opioids are body craves. With the additional sugar come more calories. Traditional sugar has a cost in calories and may lead to a plethora of health problems. Aspartame was developed to help with the caloric burden.

There has been much in the media about aspartame. It has been implicated in Attention Deficit Disorder, birth defects, cancer, behavioral problems, and interactions with medications. In reading through the articles, the elephant in the room is that we just do not know what these artificial substances do to the body. These substances have very complex bio-chemical breakdown pathways that may vary from person to person.

For example, aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, methanol, aspartic acid, formaldehyde and formic acid. Aspartame may deplete the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which has many implications in brain health.

Aspartame breaks down to phenylalanine. Tyrosine, another amino acid, is derived from phenylalanine. The more aspartame, the more tyrosine. This mechanism reduces tryptophan in the brain. The brain needs tryptophan to make serotonin. The brain needs appropriate levels of serotonin for many physiologic functions including, learning. All brains and especially developing brains are susceptible to these chemical changes. These complexities are not conveyed on a label. The labels will not say, “we do not know” the full physiologic consequences of ingesting these chemicals for prolonged periods

The scrutiny of aspartame and other sugar substitutes is growing. New sugar substitutes are being developed. Sucralose is showing up in many products.

Everything we put into our bodies and brains have a physiologic consequence. An AP story from Albany, New York, recently implicated an herbal supplement, kratom. This product is marketed as an energizer and is suppose to help with addictions. This substance was implicated in the death of a police officer. Our genome, the DNA inherited from our ancestors determines our susceptibilities. Individuals with a condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot handle phenylalanine. Each one of us has a unique genome. If the genetics are stressed, problems may ensue. The goal is to not stress our bodies on all levels.

I am not ashamed to admit that we do not know. We often do not know the physiology of these chemicals and breakdown products. We do not know which individuals have susceptible genes. We do not know how developing brains will respond. The body is too complicated.

Those selling all sorts of products, including aspartame, are doing their job, which is to make money. Some of these chemicals create the potential for addictions. When a product raises suspicion, a new substitute is developed.

When in doubt, listen to the wisdom of Dr. Hippocrates, do no harm. This is the safest route. You cannot believe everything you read.

It is acceptable to admit, we do not know.