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How Aspartame Effects the Brain

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How Aspartame Effects the Brain

The NIH-AARP study of Americans followed for years found that frequent consumption of sweetened beverages, especially diet drinks, may increase depression risk among older adults. Whether soda, fruit-flavored drinks or iced tea, those artificially sweetened drinks appeared to carry higher risk. There was a benefit in coffee drinkers compared to non-drinkers, but if they add sugar, much of the benefits disappear and if they add Equal or Sweet-and-Low, the risk may go up.

Various effects of artificial sweeteners, including neurological effects, have been suspected.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Various effects of artificial sweeteners, including neurological effects, have been suspected. For example, aspartame—the chemical in Equal and Nutrasweet—may modulate brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, although data have been controversial and inconsistent. Scientific opinions range from “safe under all conditions” to “unsafe at any dose.”

The controversy started in the 80s soon after aspartame was approved. Researchers at the Mass College of Pharmacy and MIT noted:

“Given the very large number of Americans routinely exposed, if only 1 percent of the 100,000,000 Americans thought to consume aspartame ever exceed the sweetener’s acceptable daily intake and if only 1 percent of this group happen coincidentally to have an underlying disease that makes their brains vulnerable to the effects, then the number of people who might manifest adverse brain reactions attributable to aspartame could still be about 10,000, a number on the same order as the number of brain and nerve-related consumer complaints already registered with the FDA before they stopped accepting further reports on adverse reactions to the sweetener.”

Those with a history of depression might be especially vulnerable. Researchers at Case Western designed a study to ascertain whether individuals with mood disorders are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of aspartame. Although they had planned on recruiting 40 patients with depression and 40 controls, the project was halted early by the Institutional Review Board for safety reasons because of the severity of reactions to aspartame within the group of patients with a history of depression. It was decided that it was unethical to continue to expose people to the stuff.

Normally when we study a drug or a food, the company donates the product to the researchers because they’re proud of the benefits or safety of their product. But the Nutrasweet company refused to even sell it to these researchers. The researchers managed to get their hands on some and within a week there were significantly more adverse effects reported in the aspartame group than in the placebo group. They concluded that individuals with mood disorders may be particularly sensitive to aspartame and therefore its use in this population should be discouraged.

In a review of the direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, it was noted that there are reports of aspartame causing neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals, such as headaches, insomnia and seizures. The researchers go even further and propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the development of certain mental disorders and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning. They conclude that “due to all the adverse effects caused by aspartame, it is suggested that serious further testing and research be undertaken to eliminate any and all controversies,” to which someone wrote into the journal that “there really is no controversy,” aspartame really is potentially toxic stuff.

But what do they mean by excessive ingestion? The latest study on the neuro-behavioral effects of aspartame consumption put people on a high aspartame diet compared to a low aspartame diet. But even the high dose at 25 mg/kg was only half the adequate daily intake set by the FDA. The FDA says one can safely consume 50mg a day, but after just eight days on half of that, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression and performed worse on certain brain function tests. And these weren’t people with a pre-existing history of mental illness; these were just regular people. The researchers concluded that “given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level [40mg in Europe, 50mg here] careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health.”

Easier said than done, since it’s found in more than 6,000 foods, apparently making artificial sweeteners “impossible to completely eradicate from daily exposure.” While that may be true for the great majority of Americans, it’s only because they elect to eat processed foods. If we stick to whole foods, we don’t even have to read the ingredients lists, because the healthiest foods in the supermarket are label-free, they don’t even have ingredients lists!

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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