Reported June 10, 2002

Aspartame: A Different Perspective

By: Sheila Sobell

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Internist Carl V. Manion M.D., is sweet on aspartame. Along with critics who claim the food additive triggers a variety of disorders from brain tumors to systemic lupus, he's convinced that the sweetener actually does cross the blood barrier into cellular structures. But that's where the similarities end.

"While our work has shown that aspartame 'does do something' to the body, the difference is that we think its effects are laudatory, not negative," he says.
A researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), the third leading holder of medical patents, Manion feels so strongly about aspartame's analgesic properties that he prescribes it for multiple sclerosis patients. He even used it to ease his wife's suffering when she was dying of the disease.

"My wife had MS long before I became interested in aspartame," he says. "We only started using it in 1994 when scientists suggested it interferes with the production of antibodies, which could be beneficial in treating an autoimmune disease like MS. My wife said that nothing was as good as the aspartame in relieving head and joint pain and making her comfortable."

Currently Manion's group has applied for several patents resulting from their studies demonstrating that aspartame is "especially effective in relieving pain associated with osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, and sickle cell anemia."

New theories also suggest that aspartame might even help ward off testicular cancer.

If cancer researcher Gary G. Schwartz, M.P.H., Ph.D., of Wake Forest University is correct in hypothesizing that testicular cancer is triggered by a multi-step process beginning in pregnancy or early childhood with exposure to mold-contaminated grain, coffee, or pork, aspartame's biochemistry might be a key to its prevention. That's because aspartame's molecular structure is very similar to the mold toxin, ochratoxin A, and can prevent it from binding onto protein, thereby immunizing the animal (and hopefully people) against its effects.

Why then has aspartame gotten such a bad rap? Ivanhoe asked Dr. Manion to help clarify long-standing issues about aspartame's safety like whether or not it causes brain tumors.

"There isn't any doubt that a transient increase in the number of brain tumors was observed for a short time after aspartame's introduction," says Manion.

"This fits with the fact that aspartame is an aspirin-like compound, which would have masked early symptoms of brain tumors like headaches. When the effects wore off [and the headaches returned], more patients consulted doctors and more tumors were diagnosed."

Interestingly, the downward fluctuation in tumor incidence didn't generate safety concerns, Manion points out. "Instead, everyone focused on the slight increase, overlooking the fact that the brain tumor rate balanced out within two years. Even regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found no connection between aspartame and brain tumors. "

Is aspartame implicated in Epstein Barr disease?

"At OMRF, scientists are collecting information to prove that Epstein Barr is a virus that's the root cause of lupus," says Manion. "Obviously, aspartame doesn't cause that virus, though change in usage patterns may trigger an immune system backlash. For example, suppose you have the virus in your body and don't feel well. Then you start taking aspartame and seem better. But when you stop the aspartame and its aspirin-like effects wear off, you feel worse. Does that mean aspartame caused the disease? No. Without aspartame, the disease, which was already there, just became easier to see."

Can using aspartame trigger depression and mood disorders?

"I haven't made those observations in people taking aspartame, but on the other hand I have seen how giving young children too much sugar makes them giddy and hyperactive," says Manion. "It's possible in my mind that big doses of aspartame might have an impact on sensitive individuals."

Dietary sensitivities and allergies might also explain why eliminating additives like aspartame and MSG could alleviate pain associated with fibromyalgia.

Nonetheless, institutions like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, American Dietetic Association, and the American Council on Science and Health stand behind its safety.

Do users develop "aspartame disease" resulting from methanol poisoning expressed by MS-like symptoms of depression, slurred speech, memory loss, and heart palpitations?

The term "aspartame disease" troubles Dr. Manion. He describes the problem in the following way: "Medicine has described a 'disease' as a process that satisfies 'Koch's postulate' which begins with symptoms, moves to observable findings in the body, and then defines a cause. The process is then reversed so that the proposed causal agent is given; the bodily changes are observed, and the symptoms follow.

"But this logical progression is badly flawed when it comes to aspartame disease. Not everyone experiences symptoms; no specific organ damage can be defined reproducibly, and any damages evaluated may be explained by numerous causes other than the aspartame. The rigor and thoroughness of Koch's postulate has not been something the aspartame disease advocates have been willing to follow, challenge, nor demonstrate."

"The FDA has reviewed data about aspartame's safety 17 times since it came on the market 21 years ago," says Daniel L. Azarnoff, M.D., who was president of research and development at Searle & Co. when it introduced aspartame. "The conclusion still is that it's safe."

Award-winning journalist Sheila Sobell ( is the author of three health books.