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Aspartame Methanol and the Public Health
Abstract and Figures
Aspartame (L-asparty-L-phenylalanine methyl ester), a new sweetener marketed under the trade name NutraSweet*, releases into the human bloodstream one molecule of methanol for each molecule of aspartame consumed. This new methanol source is being added to foods that have considerably reduce caloric content and, thus, may be consumed in large amounts. Generally, none of these foods could be considered dietary methanol sources prior to addition of aspartame. When diet sodas and soft drinks, sweetened with aspartame, are used to replace fluid loss during exercise and physical exertion in hot climates, the intake of methanol can exceed 250 mg/day or 32 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit of consumption for this cumulative toxin. There is extreme variation in the human response to acute methanol poisoning, the lowest recorded lethal oral dose being 100 mg/kg with one individual surviving a dose over ninety times this level55. Humans, due perhaps to the loss of two enzymes during evolution, are more sensitive to methanol than any laboratory animal; even the monkey is not generally accepted as a suitable animal model42. There are no human or mammalian studies to evaluate the possible mutagenic, teratogenic, or carcinogenic effects of chronic administration of methyl alcohol. The average intake of methanol from natural sources varies but limited data suggests an average intake of considerably less than 10 mg/day8. Alcoholics may average much more, with a potential range of between 0 and 600 mg/day, depending on the source and in some cases the quality of their beverages. Ethanol, the classic antidote for methanol toxicity, is found in natural food sources of methanol at concentrations 5 to 500,000 times that of the toxin (Table 1). Ethanol inhibits metabolism of methanol and allows the body time for clearance of the toxin through the lungs and kidneys. The question asked whether uncontrolled consumption of this new sweetener might increase the methanol intake of certain individuals to a point beyond which our limited knowledge of acute and chronic human methanol toxicity can be extrapolated to predict safety. *NutraSweet is a trademark of G.D. Searl & Co.
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