Aspartame: Makgeolli’s Sordid Affair

When my interest in makgeolli was brewing (boom!), I noticed that many makgeolli lovers get really irked when bottlers use aspartame. I’ll come clean and just say that I am not a health nut. I had heard of aspartame before but only vaguely knew that it was some kind of synthetic sweetener. I’ll also admit that I wasn’t really bothered by this fact; if the makgeolli was good, I didn’t really care what was in it. But all the comments and articles and snatches of conversation made me curious why aspartame-use in makgeolli was so vilified. Not to mention, I started to notice many of the makgeollis that listed aspartame as an ingredient were, in fact, not good.

I needed to get to the bottom of the whole aspartame imbroglio. I’m far from being a medical expert so this is basically just ad-hoc research cobbled together from various websites.

What is aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial, non-saccharide sweetener that started appearing in restaurants, cafés, and supermarkets as NutraSweet and, later, Equal back in the early 80s.

equal-front

Might as well be the stevia packet from Breaking Bad.

I won’t get into the chemistry of it suffice it to say that aspartame is about 200-times sweeter than everyday sugar and, according to Kay O’Donnell’s research in 2006, it is the artificial sweetener that comes closest to imitating the taste of real sugar. It’s most commonly found in diet sodas. In 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration upped aspartame’s status and approved its use in all foods. It gained E.U. approval in 1994.

How did aspartame get on the market?

Apparently, aspartame’s backstory is as insidious and as full of evil fat cats and cabals as a John Grisham novel.

SkippingChristmas

And I’m not talking about Skipping Christmas.

According to an article published on collective-evolution.com and this video created by mercola.com, James Schlatter, a chemist working for G.D. Searle & Company, stumbled upon aspartame in an experiment. Searle then decides to push for FDA approval but it is ultimately denied. A 1977 study called the Bressler Report comes out and says that animal testing shows that aspartame is linked to brain tumors and other side effects. The report goes on to say that Searle’s initial studies on aspartame were incomplete and inaccurate. (Fraudulent seems like another word you could use.) The Bressler Report and two other independent studies lead to an FDA ban on aspartame in 1980.

Did I mention Searle’s CEO at the time was Donald Rumsfeld?! So, Searle reapplies to the FDA after Reagan is elected in 1981 and it just so happens that Rumsfeld somehow has a hand in getting the new FDA commissioner appointed. Hayes, the new commish, creates a five-person committee to reassess aspartame. When the vote for approval comes back three “NO” votes and two “YES” votes, Hayes selects a sixth member to join the group and, to no one’s surprise, the sixth member approves it. Hayes has no recourse but to vote to break the tie. Thus, aspartame was approved by the FDA. And then, in ’85, Monsanto buys Searle. I’m not sure what this has to do with why aspartame is evil but it’s Monsanto. So, it’s evil.

Tarot cards never lie.

Tarot cards never lie.

But again, this information comes from the article and the video from mercola.com. In Mercola’s defense, I’ll say that when I typed in “health websites”, I found it listed 10th in terms of visitors per month (“15,500,000 estimated unique monthly visitors”). However, The Globe and Mail, a Canadian publication, refers to Dr. Mercola as “the high priest of quackery”. Take this info with a grain of asper… er, salt.

What is the brouhaha behind aspartame?

There are a number or purported benefits and risks of ingesting aspartame. So, starting with the “good” stuff:

  • Aspartame is low in calories yet tastes very similar to real sugar.
  • Diabetics can consume aspartame without health risks.
  • Aspartame does not cause tooth decay.

As for the risks, they are a bit more complicated.

First off, although aspartame has been touted as a low-calorie substitute for sugar – advocates even going so far as to say that the substance will help people lose weight – some research has shown that, because it can be addictive, there is a positive correlation between aspartame use and weight gain. At the very least, your brain feels tricked by the lack of carbs it receives when you consume aspartame so you feel compelled to eat more. Researchers call this the “Big Mac and Diet Coke Phenomenon”.

The artificial sweetener has also been blamed for a host of side-effects (see here, here, and here), including depression, anxiety, irritability, headaches, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, weakness, chills, numbness, shooting pains, heart palpitations, breathing problems, behavioral disturbances, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Neuritis, epilepsy, arthritis, ADD, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, birth defects, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, lymphoma, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, brain tumors, and even death have been attributed to (or at least aggravated by) aspartame.

The main culprit aspartame-haters hate is the substance’s methyl ester bond which, after it is ingested, becomes methanol (or wood alcohol), which, after it passes into your blood-brain barrier, becomes formaldehyde. While animals can detoxify methanol, humans cannot so animal-testing isn’t really valid. But, according to the Bressler Report, aspartame causes brain tumors in mice and, um… Dear god I’m confused…

In contrast to these claims, a study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority showed that a person would have to drink 1,600 cans of Diet Coke a day to reach toxic proportions. The same Globe and Mail article argues that there is, in fact, more methanol in a banana than a can of Diet Coke. In fact, it seems we already have aspartame’s three ingredients – phenylalanine acid, aspartic acid, and methanol – in a many of the food’s we eat so, according to this article, the question is not “Is aspartame safe?” but “Is the amount you’re consuming unhealthy?”

And there have been several studies like this one that conclude that there is “no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue.” (Again, this study used mice, rats, hamsters, and dogs which are all apparently methanol impervious.)

At the end of the day, the only conclusive health risk posed by aspartame is for people who have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, an amino acid found in the sweetener, or who already have high levels of phenylalanine in their system. People with the genetic disease phenylketonuria, some pregnant mothers, and people with liver disease all run the risk of suffering brain damage if they ingest too much aspartame.

Finally, there is the fact that aspartame has been approved by over 90 countries and is used in more than 6,000 products. I don’t know whether or not this will assuage your fears given how it was approved in the U.S. If you want to read a fairly balanced piece of writing on the subject, it would be worth checking out the American Cancer Society.

Why, makgeolli, why?

Unsweetened makgeolli on its own can be a tart, bitter punch in the face. Some people like their makgeolli that way just like some people enjoy the bitter hoppiness of an IPA.

One of my friends described 선호생막걸리 (Suhnho Saeng Makgeolli) as “unfriendly and even violent”.

One of my friends described 선호생막걸리 (Suhnho Saeng Makgeolli) as “unfriendly and even violent”.

I, for one, do not fall in this camp – I’ve got too much of a sweet tooth. But if you take a look through your local convenience store or supermarket, it’s near impossible to find a makgeolli that uses a different sweetener. Actually, you’ll be lucky to find more than one or two bottles that do not contain aspartame. (Check here and here to read posts from two intrepid makgeolli lovers who document their searches for aspartame-free makgeolli.)

So why is aspartame used in the first place? According to this blogger, he was told aspartame is “one of the only sweeteners that doesn’t spoil the fermented mixture.” The makgeolli entry in wikipedia seems to confirm this statement: aspartame is sometimes added because it “gives sweetness without adding a fermentable carbohydrate, increasing shelf life and flavor stability in commercial brands.”

The other options for sweetening makgeolli include stevia leaf extract (which is what is used in Daedaepo Blue Label), sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol (which strangely enough have neither sugar nor alcohol), and sucralose a.k.a. Splenda (although one study showed there may be a link between sucralose and leukemia). But, as I mentioned previously, you’d be hard-pressed to find makgeollis that make use of one of these substitutes.

Final Thoughts

To be honest, I don’t know if I’m completely sold on the notion that aspartame is unhealthy; it seems there are too many contrasting arguments made by too many organizations that have questionable motives. In the end, if you’re really worried about aspartame, just steer clear of makgeollis that use them. As I mentioned at the top, most of these makgeollis are not that great anyway. You’ll be glad you put in a little more effort to find a nice bottle. One place to check is your local joomak (or makgeolli bar): any joomak worth its salt will have an aspartame-free bottle and these establishments will often sell bottles for take-out.

On a side note, Steven Bammel makes an interesting point on his blog post, “‘New’ is the ‘New Old’ in Korea Today”. In it he talks about Korean traditions and crafts that are seeing a resurgence in popularity as Korea enters the world’s spotlight. Basically, he says that many of these traditions are getting a facelift to make them more marketable internationally but that these “improvements” diminish the appeal of the original, historical tradition. His first example: aspartame in makgeolli. If Korea really wants to promote makgeolli worldwide, it would do better to leave out controversial substances like aspartame in favor of making something authentic. Think Dogfish Head beer.

I think that’s everything! If I got anything wrong, missed something, or you just plain disagree, leave me a note in the comments section.

By the way, if you’re trying to find out if your bottle of makgeolli contains aspartame, look for 아스파탐, which can literally be read “asupatam”. (You can find this and other information about what’s listed on your makgeolli bottle by checking out the Makgeolli Bottle Term Guide.)

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2 thoughts on “Aspartame: Makgeolli’s Sordid Affair

  1. Pingback: The Maksa Cocktail | takjoo journals

  2. Pingback: The One Year Anniversary of Takjoo Journals | takjoo journals

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