The Aspartame Debate – Part 3: Phenylalanine
The second ingredient that makes up 50% of Aspartame is Phenylalanine.
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning that it is necessary for the proper function of the body, however the body itself can’t produce it. Instead it must be consumed in the diet. The body uses phenylalanine to build proteins and to make the amino acid tyrosine. It occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat such as milk, eggs, meat and bananas. It is important to note that, in its natural form, phenylalanine is found in combination with other amino acids. In its “man-made” form, as in Aspartame, it is isolated.
You may have seen warnings on the containers of diet sodas or anything with Aspartame saying that “Phenylketonurics” should avoid this product. This is because these folks cannot metabolize phenylalanine and therefore they will accumulate dangerously high levels of this substance in their brain, causing serotonin levels to drop. Unfortunately, human studies have proven that this scenario can hold true even for those who do not suffer from phenylketonuria but do consume large amounts of aspartame over a long period of time.
As usual, you can find many pros and cons when you search on phenylalanine. The big area of concern seems to be the isolated nature of this ingredient when it is included in a man-made substance. After much research on this, it seems to me that the body does, in fact, process the isolated version quite differently than the combined version, as was also true regarding the first ingredient we discussed – aspartic acid. If excessive amounts make it to the brain, the neural cells will once again be overstimulated, causing memory loss and other brain-related issues, some quite a bit more serious than others. And since serotonin levels drop dramatically when exposed to an excess of phenylalanine, depression and other mood disorders could result.
Those who deny any safety issues regarding phenylalanine maintain that, because it occurs naturally in our food and it is essential to our bodily processes, it is harmless if not actually good for you as an aspartame ingredient. Once again, I go back to my theory that, if the research is sponsored by those who have a financial motivation, I am skeptical. On the other hand, when well-respected, independent sources make research-backed statements, I put more credence in the results. In this case, the supporters of phenylalanine in diet products seem to be heavily weighted toward those who are financially invested in the products.
Through my reading I came across many case studies and/or concerned consumers who exhibited side effects that they believe resulted from consuming diet sodas or foods. These individuals were not phenylketonurics, but they did experience headaches and memory loss. You can actually find all of the complaints reported to the FDA regarding aspartame as a whole on the website of Dr. Janet Starr Hull. In her book, “Sweet Poison,” Dr. Hull details her experience with illness relating to aspartame and her subsequent detox and healing. On her website she points out the interesting fact that “The 1976 Groliers encyclopedia states cancer cannot live without phenylalanine.”
So, although there are more studies every day that are finding that phenylalanine is harmful not only to those with phenylketonuria but also to anyone who consumes large amounts of aspartame over a long period of time, the debate will likely continue. Awareness is the key. If it is true that excessive levels of phenylalanine in the brain do, in fact, lead to things like depression, headaches and memory loss, then if you begin to experience any of these symptoms, look first to your intake of aspartame as a possible culprit.
Alternative Medicine, the Definitive Guide. Trivieri, Larry and Anderson, John W. Celestial Arts, Berkeley 2002.
Wurtman and Walker, “Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function,” Proceedings of the First International Meeting on Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function., Washington, D.C., May 8, 1987
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