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The Informed Parent

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jul. 16, 2012

With the government’s campaign to decrease our children’s consumption of sugar drinks, we will see the increase intake of aspartame-containing liquids. Diet drinks may contain large amounts of this artificial sweetener.

What is aspartame? It is the most commonly used substance to make products sweet when sugar is not used. A brand name of this product is Nutrasweet. Aspartame is composed of 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid and 10% methanol--not the most benign collection of substances.

We know that infants who have a metabolic abnormality that does not allow for the metabolism of phenylalanine develop severe nervous system damage because of high blood levels of phenylalanine. I have seen several patients who developed alterations in their brain function when they ingested aspartame.

Some patients experienced one or more of the following:

  1. Headaches
  2. Confusion
  3. Dysfunction of short-term memory
  4. Depression
  5. Fatigue

All of the symptoms disappeared when the patient stopped the intake of the product.

As we see a decrease in the use of sugar sweetened products, we can only expect an increase in artificially sweetened food and drink. The percentage of patients who adversely react to aspartame is small. With the potential expanse of its use by legislative decree the number of effected children will increase greatly. This side-effect is not just limited to children but touches all age groups from infancy to the geriatric population.

Obesity is a serious problem. Drinking 32 ounces of a soft drink laced with loads of sugar is not a good practice for any of us. But neither is ingesting 32 ounces of an aspartame-loaded beverage. Again I want to reiterate, it appears not all people develop side-effects with aspartame. But there is a sufficient number that I have seen in my practice.

Several years ago I received a call from the frantic mother of a high school girl. She was stating that her daughter was in a psychiatric hospital for depression. The psychiatrist thought she might have infectious mononucleosis. Mom wanted me to examine her and evaluate this concern.

I knew this girl as an “A” student who was energetic and popular. I wondered how she could have ended up in a psychiatric ward. During my assessment it became evident that recently she had begun drinking diet sodas in place of regular sugar sweetened products. It was during this time that her grades fell and she became reclusive. This resulted in her ingestion of anti depressant medication and finally admission to the hospital when the drug did not work.

She did not have infectious mononucleosis. At my suggestion she ceased the use of diet sodas. By the end of the week she was off the drug and was no longer depressed. She resumed school as her old, happy and successful self.

One case does not a study make. But I have had enough patients with side-effects to aspartame that tells me an albeit small but definite percentage of the population cannot tolerate aspartame without neurological or psychiatric symptoms.

Let us be aware of the potential problems that an increase in diet drinks and foods may cause. We must decrease the amount of carbohydrates that our children take in. But we don’t want to substitute a potentially side-effect loaded substance in its place. 

What can parents do? Dilute juices with water or carbonated water to decrease the carbohydrate (sugar) load.  50% juice and water drink significantly decreases the sugar content but does not completely render the drink unpalatable. A parent can also do this with regular sodas using sparkling water. It will take time for the children to accept diluted sodas because they have been trained to enjoy the high carbohydrate taste of traditional soft drinks. The ultimate solution--DRINK WATER. But I’m a realist and understand that will not work.

Be alert to the impact of change in your child’s diet and act with knowledge, not emotion.

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