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How Sweet It Isn't: Cancer Expert Keith Block, MD, Advises Avoiding Artificial Sweetener Aspartame

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Leni Kass

Health concerns are mounting about aspartame, the artificial sweetener consumed by more than 350 million people worldwide. Data from a long term, large scale animal study released by scientists from the Ramazzini Foundation for Cancer Research in Bologna, Italy, strongly link the chemical additive to cancer. This research has prompted the European Food Safety Authority to announce the group will review the research "as a matter of high priority, in the context of previous extensive safety data available on aspartame."

In the U.S., the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board is considering whether it has statutory authority to ban aspartame in the state due to worries the sweetener could be contributing to citizens’ health problems. In addition, Christine Lydon, MD, a consultant for several of the world’s largest sports nutrition companies who has recommended aspartame-containing products to clients for years, has written an article published in the October edition of Oxygen magazine in which she says a review of the scientific research on the substance has convinced her aspartame is a health hazard. “I sat down with a pile of literature two inches thick. After making it through the first 10 pages, I stormed into my kitchen and fed every item of food containing aspartame to the garbage,” she writes in the magazine article. “Since that time, I have not had so much as a stick of aspartame sweetened gum.”

First declared safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981 for use in powdered mixes and tabletop sweeteners, by 1996 aspartame was approved for use in all foods and beverages. However, Ralph Walton, MD, a psychiatry professor at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, analyzed the research. He documented that all of the research showing no health risks had aspartame industry-linked sponsorship. On the other hand, 92% of the independent, non-aspartame industry sponsored studies identified one or more problems with aspartame. “That’s a glaring disparity,” notes Keith I. Block, MD, one of the nation’s leading cancer specialists, who is editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal Integrative Cancer Therapies. Dr. Block says he has been troubled for years by the possibility the sugar substitute may, in fact, be anything but a healthy dietary choice. He is particularly concerned about the possibility aspartame might be a carcinogen. The Ramazzini Foundation’s study concluded aspartame caused cancer of the kidney and peripheral nerves, mainly in the head. Earlier data from the same study published in July showed aspartame in doses closely equivalent to the acceptable daily intake for women caused an increased risk for leukemia and lymphomas in female lab rats.

In addition to concerns about a possible aspartame/cancer link, Dr. Block, Medical/Scientific Director of the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care and Optimal Health in Evanston, Illinois, and a Clinical Professor, Department of Medical Education, at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago (UIC), and at the Department of Pharmacology, and his colleagues believe the sweetener may produce a host of distressing symptoms in some people. “Women in particular have reported neurotoxic reactions to aspartame and we have observed that skin reactions and gastrointestinal symptoms often disappear in patients who stop consuming aspartame-containing products.”

Dr. Block also explains that phenylalanine and aspartic acid, the amino acid components of aspartame, are known to stimulate insulin release – which could actually sabotage a dieter’s effort to lose weight. “ In addition, high insulin levels tend to amplify the adverse effects of some other growth factors that could ultimately fuel the growth and spread of cancers such as colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer,” he notes. “I think such theoretical links should at least warrant considering cutting back or eliminating aspartame containing foods in the diet."

What sweetener does Dr. Block recommend? “There are a variety of natural grain and plant-derived sweeteners that do not cause a big spike in blood sugar. nd fruit can often satisfy a ‘sweet tooth’ while providing many health benefits,” he answers. “I also recommend eating smaller meals throughout the day, and eating foods that have a low-glycemic index, such as corn, peas, and black beans. The body requires more time to break down and absorb these foods, and this leads to a more gradual and moderate rise in blood glucose levels. Much research suggests that this kind of dietary strategy will result in better health and greater longevity – and it is a far healthier way to eat than relying on artificial sweeteners.”

Leni Kass has been in marketing and public relations for over 15 years. Previously, she worked with teens, and facilitated a therapy group for adolescents with eating disorders. She is cofounder and CEO of Hey U.G.L.Y., Inc. NFP, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that empowers teens with self-esteem building tools, to help them counter challenges such as eating disorders, bullying, violence, substance abuse and suicide. U.G.L.Y. is an acronym that stands for meaning Unique Gifted Lovable You.

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