Aspartame: Is it Safe?

What is Aspartame, and is it safe?

With the new sugar tax coming into effect from April 2018, it can be expected that companies will be using low calorie alternatives in their products even more frequently as a means to avoid paying any extra revenue, as you would anticipate they might.

For a number of years, there have been several food additives used as a substitute for sugar to sweeten food and beverages and one of the most popular is aspartame.  Aspartame is an artificial sweetener often used in soft drinks, chewing gum, sweets, yoghurts, crisps and vitamin tablets, not forgetting the little white sweetening tablets found in the small dispensers so many buy to use as an alternative to a spoonful of sugar in their tea or coffee.  It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.  The intense sweetness means that only miniscule amounts are needed to sweeten products and so the calorie count is significantly reduced, indeed, in products where sugar would usually be the main calorific ingredient, it makes the calorie content far more palatable.  For those with the occasional craving for something sweet, this would seem to be the perfect solution.

As with any miracle product though, it is always worth digging a bit deeper.  The components that make up aspartame are phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol.  Once ingested, the body breaks aspartame down into those original three elements.  Phenylalanine is particularly dangerous for those who suffer from a very rare condition called, phenylketonuria.  These individuals’ bodies are unable to process phenylalanine meaning it can build up in their blood and brain, potentially causing brain damage, so it is important that they monitor what they are ingesting.  With such a toxic effect on this small percentage of the world’s population, it would seem prudent to exercise caution. 

There have been countless controversies about aspartame since it was first developed in 1965 and pronounced safe by the EU in 1994.  Some studies have claimed it causes, amongst other things, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, migraines, seizures, brain tumours, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and even birth defects. It should be noted that none of these have been formally substantiated and that the European Food Safety Authority conducted a study in 2013 which concluded that aspartame was safe, however, these claims will not go away.  There is a constant flow of scare stories about aspartame which continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty over its safety.

In 2007, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Sainsbury’s all announced that they would no longer be using aspartame or any other artificial additives in their own brand products.  They now use some of the other alternative sweeteners that are available such as sucralose and sorbitol.  A product which is widely available and naturally occurring is Xylitol.  This has been known about for over half a century and can be extracted from birch trees or corn cobs so comes from a natural source, although it does have to go through a processing procedure to bring it to point of sale.

Avoiding sugar and replacing it with alternatives about whose side effects there is still debate is not the only option available to us.  A balanced diet including moderate amounts of sugar together with regular exercise is always to be endorsed and will help maintain good health but for those who suffer health issues which mean sugar is a no-go zone, then it’s worth doing your research about the type of sweeteners that are available so that you can make an informed choice about just what you’re putting into your body.

What is Clostridium Botulinum?

Clostridium Botulinum

For those of us born before the technological age, our childhoods would probably have involved playing outside for much of the time, making our own entertainment.  For many, playing in the mud and dirt was a great pastime.  You might be one of those that made mud pies and got absolutely filthy, to the despair of your parents.  Some children actually proceeded to tuck into said mud pies but have turned out just fine.  Little did we know, however, that something pretty sinister was lurking in the very same soil from which we were making our mud pies.

Sources, Causes and Symptoms

Clostridium botulinum is bacteria which is present in untreated water, soil and dust all over the world and can also be found on a number of food items, for example, anything which has been grown in soil may have had contact with the bacteria.  The bacteria in its natural state is not harmful but, as an ‘obligate anaerobe’, if it is deprived of oxygen, its spores start to produce toxins which can, in very rare cases, be fatal.  It is no exaggeration to say that it is probably the most dangerous of food borne illnesses that can be contracted.  The toxins attack the nervous system, disabling the neurotransmitters which carry instructions from the brain to our muscles, thus causing paralysis.  Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, double vision, drooping eyelids and paralysis amongst others.  It can be treated with antitoxins which prevent the toxins from travelling round the body so an immediate visit to the doctor or hospital is absolutely imperative.

Foodborne botulism is generally contracted from canned foods which have not been processed correctly at source.  In food in canned form, the bacteria are deprived of oxygen and toxins develop so that, when consumed, the illness strikes.  In the UK, hygiene regulations are very strict so food being processed incorrectly is a real rarity.  Canned food is subject to intense heating and sterilisation processes which should eradicate any risk.

Clostridium Botulinum in Children

Infant botulism is the most frequent form of the illness and occurs mostly in babies under the age of 6 months, although it tends to occur through botulinum spores releasing the toxins once ingested, rather than pre-developed toxins in foods.  At this age, their bodies have not yet developed to deal with botulinum in bacteria form, as adults’ immune systems have.  For adults, it is the pre-developed toxins that pose the risk.


It should be noted that cases of botulism are very scarce but there are measures you can take to ensure avoiding contact with these potentially deadly toxins.  Never eat food from a can which is bulging or leaking, or which shoots out unnaturally when being opened, as it could be contaminated.  Heat food which comes from cans properly.  The World Health Organisation states that, ‘the toxin produced by bacteria growing out of the spores under anaerobic conditions is destroyed by boiling (for example, at internal temperature greater than 85 °C for 5 minutes or longer)’.  Never give honey to children under 1 year old as this is a common cause of infant botulism.  If you are going to can food at home, make sure you find out how to do it properly so that you can follow the strictest hygiene procedures.  Always put leftover and cooked food in the refrigerator, as low temperatures help to prevent the formation of toxins.  Decant any leftovers from cans into other containers and refrigerate.  Simple measures which are easy to follow and which could make all the difference.


On a final note, it’s not all bad news.  The botulinum bacteria is the main ingredient used in botox, where the skin is effectively ‘paralysed’ to reduce the appearance of wrinkles so, for those who seek the elixir of youth, the botulinum bacteria is one of the finds of the modern age!


Is The Sugar Tax Justified?

Thoughts on the Sugar Tax

If you have a sweet tooth, you might have found the proposals to impose a tax on sugary drinks in the latest Budget slightly disappointing.  There is no denying that childhood obesity is a problem in the UK and that steps need to be taken to combat it, but is a sugar tax the right step to take?

From April 2018, the sugar tax will be levied upon producers, importers, retailers and consumers of any soft drinks which have added sugar.  Some alcoholic drinks, with a volume of up to 1.2% will also have the tax applied.  Fruit juices are exempt as they contain naturally occurring sugars, but purchasers will be advised to limit their consumption.  There will be two levels of tax; a lower rate of 18p per litre which will apply to those drinks which have 5g or more sugar per 100ml and a higher rate of 24p per litre for those drinks which have 8g or more sugar per 100ml.  Your standard 330ml can of coke contains 35g of sugar, the equivalent of 7 teaspoons, so will be hit hard.

Many organisations including Diabetes UK and the charity, Action on Sugar, have been campaigning for this outcome for some time and have welcomed the news.  It also has the backing of dentists as a means of reducing tooth decay.  A triumph for many it seems, but is sugar getting an unfair press?

Sugar is a naturally occurring carbohydrate and is present in the structure of most natural products in one form or another, e.g. fructose in fruit and lactose in milk.  We tend to think of it as it is most commonly used, in granulated crystal form, sourced from sugarcane and sugar beet.  It is used in baking, e.g. cakes and biscuits and is added to other foods for sweetening and flavour.  Sugar is also a natural preservative, causing bacteria to lose water which impedes its ability to live and multiply, prolonging the shelf life of many products.

It would not be unreasonable to say that sugar is essential in our diets because it is.  Sugar provides vital energy for our muscles and helps to keep our brains functioning effectively. There is a recommended daily allowance of added sugar per day of 30g or 7 teaspoons for adults.  The problem comes when too much is consumed as it can lead to all sorts of health problems including diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.  All these are on the rise amongst children.

Is a tax on sugar the answer to these issues and will it stop excessive intake?  It is true that there is almost an epidemic when it comes to childhood obesity but a hike in prices is unlikely to reduce consumption.  Most people that this is aimed at will continue to buy what they want and be prepared to pay the extra pennies, as we have seen with exorbitant petrol prices and 5p carrier bags.  It would be more effective to roll out an educational programme for adults and children, perhaps through television or social media, which presents them with the key information they need to know about sugar and added sugar in items like soft drinks so that they can make their own decisions and take action if required.

Producers are already looking at other ways to reduce added sugar and a popular method is to use alternative, synthetic sweeteners which are still, at this point, somewhat of an unknown quantity in terms of effects on the body.  Some groups do not want the tax to stop at soft drinks and are calling for it to be imposed on other goods such as sweets and confectionary.  Where will it all end?  Sugar should not necessarily be demonised, it does have its place and should be a small part of your staple diet, but in moderation and it is that moderation which should be encouraged and promoted in a helpful, informative way that gives the public the freedom to make their own choices.