Popular Artificial Sweetener Linked to Autism
If you drink diet soda, you’re probably being exposed to this common artificial sweetener linked to chronic disease and autism. Researchers found even one diet soda a day during pregnancy tripled the risk of autism in male offspring.
Daily exposure to the artificial sweetener aspartame in early life is associated with autism in males.[i] The finding adds to earlier reports linking the chemical sweetener to neurological problems and comes on the heels of reports that it may cause cancer in humans.[ii]
Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are found in more than 23,000 products worldwide,[iii] including diet soda. Consumption increased 54% among adults and 200% among children from 1999 to 2012 alone.[iv]
Meanwhile, in the last four decades, rates of autism have also risen dramatically, from 0.3 per 1,000 children diagnosed before 1980 to 27.6 per 1,000 children in 2020.[v] Environmental factors are likely involved, with aspartame potentially among them.
Early-Life Aspartame Exposure More Than Triples Autism Risk
Researchers with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio set out to investigate whether exposure to one diet soda or an equivalent amount of aspartame (177 milligrams (mg)) per day in utero or during early life increases the risk of autism.
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It turned out that boys with autism were more than three times as likely to have been born to a mother who consumed aspartame or diet soda daily during pregnancy or breastfeeding. According to senior study author Raymond F. Palmer, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UT Health San Antonio:[vi]
“These associations do not prove causality, but taken in concert with reports from earlier studies of increased prematurity and cardiometabolic health impacts among infants and children exposed daily to diet beverages and/or aspartame during pregnancy, our findings raise new questions about potential neurological impacts that need to be addressed.”
The study involved data from the mothers of 235 offspring with autism and 121 offspring with typical neurological development. Male offspring exposed to diet soda daily while in utero or breastfeeding had a three-fold increased risk of autism, while male offspring exposed to aspartame daily had a 3.4 times higher risk of autism and a 3.7 times higher risk of early-onset autism.[vii]
Given the study’s results, women should not use aspartame during pregnancy and breastfeeding, according to lead study author Sharon Parten Fowler, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio. She said in a news release:[viii]
“The findings suggest that women should exercise caution when considering the use of these products during pregnancy and breastfeeding until further assessments are available. Maternal consumption of these products during periods of heightened offspring vulnerability represents a modifiable potential risk factor, the elimination of which might help to protect susceptible offspring in the next generation.”
Aspartame’s Neurotoxic Effects
Aspartame is metabolized into aspartic acid, an excitatory neurotransmitter, phenylalanine, involved in regulating neurotransmitters, and methanol, which has formaldehyde and other toxins as metabolites.[ix] Adverse neurological effects from these compounds and aspartame as a whole may include:[x]
Changes in neurotransmitter levels
Damage to neuron function and survival
Increased neuronal apoptosis
Even low-dose exposure to chemical mixtures including aspartame during pregnancy are known to induce inflammation and lead to autism-like behaviors in offspring.[xi]
Animal studies also show that aspartame consumption leads to significantly reduced availability of glutamine sulfhydryl (GSH), the reduced form of glutathione. GSH is important during brain development, helping to protect against oxidative stress. Aspartame exposure, meanwhile, may induce a range of problems, such as:[xii]
- Lipid peroxidation
- Mitochondrial dysfunction
- Increased permeability of the blood-brain barrier
- Decreased brain serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine levels
Aspartame also disrupts gut microbiota, which could further trigger pathways involved in autism development. “Taken together,” the UT Health San Antonio team explained, “such physiological impacts could create a perfect storm: increasing the access of toxins to the developing brain, decreasing the developing brain’s antioxidant and detoxification capacities, and adversely impacting the microbiome-gut-brain axis, which is critical in neurodevelopment.”[xiii]
WHO: Aspartame ‘Possibly Carcinogenic’ to Humans
If you’re looking for more reasons to avoid aspartame and other artificial sweeteners in your diet, you can find dozens more adverse health effects linked to aspartame in our aspartame research database. However, be aware that in July 2023, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans.[xiv]
This was shortly after WHO warned in May 2023 that artificial sweeteners and other non-sugar sweeteners should not be used for weight loss because, in addition to offering no benefit in reducing body fat, they may lead to “potential undesirable effects from long-term use … such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.”[xv]
A 2022 study published in BMJ also found a potential direct association between higher consumption of artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.[xvi]
Despite the concerning science, public health agencies continue to state that it’s safe to consume aspartame at the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg body weight, which is about nine to 14 cans of diet soda daily for a 150-pound person.[xvii]
Considering it’s relatively easy to avoid aspartame by reading labels on the foods you eat, or choosing whole foods without labels as much as possible, it makes sense to eliminate aspartame from your diet rather than risking your health — especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or preparing for pregnancy.
[i] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[ii] World Health Organization July 14, 2023 https://www.who.int/news/item/14-07-2023-aspartame-hazard-and-risk-assessment-results-released
[v] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[vi] UT Health San Antonio September 20, 2023 https://news.uthscsa.edu/drinking-diet-sodas-and-aspartame-sweetened-beverages-daily-during-pregnancy-linked-to-autism-in-male-offspring/
[vii] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[viii] UT Health San Antonio September 20, 2023 https://news.uthscsa.edu/drinking-diet-sodas-and-aspartame-sweetened-beverages-daily-during-pregnancy-linked-to-autism-in-male-offspring/
[ix] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[x] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[xii] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[xiii] Nutrients. 2023 Sep; 15(17): 3772. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10490529/
[xiv] World Health Organization July 14, 2023 https://www.who.int/news/item/14-07-2023-aspartame-hazard-and-risk-assessment-results-released
[xvii] University of Michigan, Aspartame and cancer https://news.umich.edu/aspartame-and-cancer-a-toxicologists-take/
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