For years I only sipped on brown drinks: Morning was a Starbucks Vente Redeye and then around noon that gave way to Diet Coke number one, then two, and three, and possibly more, sometimes five or more in a day. My art director and friend told me "that stuff is poison." It turns out she was right. The first time I gave it up, it was on a ski holiday and I managed to get off the stuff for about six months, thinking it would help me lose my cellulite (I figured there might be a connection between fat cells and sodium or chemicals in my usual diet sodas). It didn't. I jumped back on the Diet Coke train, or in summer, the Fresca habit, but always "diet" sodas with aspartame. (Knowing what I know now, they should have called them "die" sodas.) All along, I knew in my heart of hearts that this habit was probably causing me some sort of slow, terrible cancer, which would show up someday. I knew better than to drink artificial sweeteners, as the editor of a major magazine devoted to helping people achieve total wellbeing. But this was my drug of choice, and I was hooked.

Then I learned that aspartame turns into formaldehyde. It also makes you fat

Then I went plant-based nearly two years ago, and slowly began to clean up other aspects of my diet, and learned that the sugary sweet taste of Diet Coke and other fake sweeteners–in sugar-free gum, for instance, or any diet soda–actually trick your brain and body into thinking "calories are coming, get insulin ready!"

This essentially defeats the purpose of avoiding sugar calories, because whatever you eat next, and it's likely to be something sweet or carb-heavy, gets treated as if it were part of the sweet-tasting bundle that included that zero-calorie soda.

In fact, after eating fake sweets, your body doesn't know the difference, studies have found: Simply tasting artificial sweeteners "may affect blood glucose and insulin levels on glucose tolerance tests," scientists at the University of Illinois found in a study done on sucralose. The findings suggest that despite having no calories, artificial sweeteners may have metabolic effects that mimic actual sugar consumption. So your insulin messengers are primed and ready to cart off all those calories for fat storage and when the calories don't come, it acts as a "call" on a stock, it waits. The cookies or chips you eat next get the same treatment that the fake sugars triggered. Off to fat they go.

In a study done at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, when artificial sweeteners found in Equal (aspartame and acesulfame potassium) were given to rats and human cell cultures, the researchers saw significant "metabolic changes at the genetic level that could lead to diabetes and obesity," according to biologist Dr. Brian Hoffmann, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, quoted in the report.

After three weeks of exposure to aspartame, there was a marked change in "the expression of genes responsible for lipid metabolism in the cells of both rats and humans." As he explained it: Aspartame caused some "significant changes, and one of those was an increase in lipids in the bloodstream and a decrease in a biomolecule that is involved in clearing (lipids) from the bloodstream."

Aspartame has been linked to metabolic disorders, obesity, and cardiovascular disease

Aspartame didn't just lead to more fat storage but changes in the cardiovascular system: “We then took those particular sweeteners and put them on endothelial cells (the cells that line the blood vessels) and we detected a marked dysfunction, suggesting why sweeteners and diet soda have been linked to potential cardiovascular problems,” he added.

Conclusion: "Artificial sweeteners appear to contribute to metabolic disorders by altering the activity of certain genes responsible for the breakdown of macromolecules such as fats and proteins," Hoffmann said. "This is different from normal sugars, which contribute to cardiovascular disease through insulin resistance and by damaging the cells lining the body’s blood vessels."

The Diet Coke Formaldehyde Connection: It breaks down in your body to formaldehyde

So maybe Diet Coke doesn't cause cellulite but it may lead to weight gain, harm your cardiovascular system, and it certainly doesn't help you get healthier. Then I learned the most disturbing fact, from a doctor who told me the whole sordid story of how aspartame got approved back in the 1980s and 1990s (first for limited use, then in hundreds of food and drink products). Aspartame gets broken down into your body as formaldehyde and it has been linked to cancer in lab animals.

Even in the light of disturbing new evidence out of Europe that aspartame caused cancer in lab animals, the FDA continues to approve this controversial sweetener.

Researchers in Italy have published studies proving that aspartame causes cancer in lab animals, the more you give the rats, the more cancers they get. Yet the FDA insists aspartame is safe, despite mounting complaints to the FDA that in humans aspartame has caused headaches and worse. Now, food safety advocates say the government is ignoring the evidence and keeping it in our food system. The question is why?

Aspartame breaks down into the body as formaldehyde. And not just a little bit of formaldehyde, which exists in nature as a gas that is safe at minuscule levels (in the air at less than 0.1 ppm), but larger amounts have been linked to cancer. (The last time I intentionally smelled formaldehyde was in middle school science class when we were forced to dissect a frog and this nauseous gas was in the lab, so it will always make me think of that traumatic scene.) Formaldehyde is created when your body breaks down the components of aspartame, which are aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol, which is a naturally occurring gas in fruit juice or other sources that also contains the antioxidants and nutrients to counter this process.

A study in Cell Biology and Toxicology found that this artificial sweetener turns into poisonous formaldehyde when it gets metabolized, yet aspartame is still popular for use by food manufacturers. Because it tastes 180 times sweeter than sugar, it has unlimited applications.

Canadian scientists have been trying to get aspartame banned in that country, according to Yukon News. "Some of them [are] physicians and PhDs," and have linked "aspartame to brain damage, brain cancer, lymphoma, mood disorders, eye damage and vision loss, migraines, tremors, depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, thyroid disorders, gastrointestinal problems, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, MS, epilepsy and unusual sudden deaths."

In Europe, aspartame is not allowed to be used in products marketed to children. The risks have not gone away, but American regulators have not done anything to try to limit it stateside, and the question is, why is this additive still so politicized? The answer is that it always has been.

How aspartame got approved for use in the US is a story of political power and greed

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by accident in a G.D. Searle & Company lab by a scientist named Jame Schlatter who was searching for a drug that would treat ulcers.  Schlatter licked his fingers and tasted the sweet taste of the drug's residue. Searle realized this could be a major boon to the diet industry as a new way to add sweeteners to foods and beverages, eventually replacing Saccharine.

Over the next decades, the company, led by CEO and Chairman Donald Rumsfeld, worked to get aspartame approved for widespread use, despite the fact that it was shown to cause cancer and death in rats in the lab. The new Reagan administration asked a board of scientists to examine the possible link between aspartame and brain tumors, and because of the controversial evidence, the board of three doctors recommended aspartame not get approval. That was but a first hurdle, and eventually, Searle surmounted it with the help of Rumsfeld's connections to the new administration.

The following year, the Food and Drug Administration approved aspartame for use in dry goods, and in 1983, the FDA greenlit the use of aspartame in carbonated beverages, and ten years later for use in other beverages, baked goods, and confections. How did this reversal come about? By many independent reports, Rumsfeld was also an advisor to Ronald Reagan's transition team and recommended the appointment of Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. as commissioner of the FDA. Weeks later, according to news reports, Rumsfeld put before the FDA a new application to approve aspartame and Hayes gave it a green light, over the objections of doctors who did not believe it safe for human consumption.

Then in 1996, under yet more pressure from the new corporate owners of aspartame, the government removed all restrictions from aspartame, which is now found in hundreds of food and drinks and distributed widely as being safe. But the fight was ugly and full of vocal scientists, who were ignored.

According to an excellent piece about how aspartame was approved, in The Huffington Post called "Donald Rumsfeld and the Strange History of Aspartame," by Robbie Gennet, published in 2011, the FDA at first rejected aspartame and later reversed itself. "Dr. John Olney, who founded the field of neuroscience called excitotoxicity, attempted to stop the approval of aspartame with Attorney James Turner back in 1996...The FDA’s own toxicologist, Dr. Adrian Gross told Congress that...aspartame can cause brain tumors and brain cancer and that it violated the Delaney Amendment, which forbids putting anything in food that is known to cause cancer." At the time, doctors and researchers submitted that "aspartame causes headaches, memory loss, seizures, vision loss, coma, and cancer."

The article adds: "The resulting chronic methanol poisoning affects the dopamine system of the brain causing addiction. Methanol, or wood alcohol, constitutes one-third of the aspartame molecule and is classified as a severe metabolic poison and narcotic."

What is even more dangerous is that we overdose on aspartame so easily, according to one expert: "Dr. Woodrow Monte wrote: '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 per day or 32 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit of consumption for this cumulative poison.' "

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the FDA was forced to release a list of aspartame symptoms reported by thousands of victims. "From 10,000 consumer complaints, the FDA compiled a list of 92 symptoms, including death."

According to Dr. Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible International, which works with doctors to remove aspartame from food, drinks, and medicine, "aspartame has brought more complaints to the FDA than any other additive and is responsible for 75% of [all] such complaints."

Dr. Martini adds that the FDA "has known this for a quarter of a century and done nothing even though it's against the law.”

That excellent overview was written 10 years ago. Yet nothing has changed. Aspartame is still readily used in hundreds of products, and though we are trying as a nation to be healthier, there are no committees or legislators doing their best to get it out of our food system. So it's up to us to just hit "quit."

The makers of aspartame have always claimed it is safe for human consumption

On the FDA's site, the government claims that aspartame is safe for human consumption. Here's why: Aspartame is made of two amino acids: Phenylalanine, and aspartic acid, and one alcohol, methanol (aka wood alcohol), which in the human body breaks down into formaldehyde.

In the human body, formaldehyde causes "gradual, severe, damage to the neurological system and immune system, and causes permanent genetic damage to cells," Yukon News reports, which can lead to cancer, even in small doses.

In healthy people, phenylalanine may be harmless, but it can reach toxic levels in people with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU). Babies are tested for PKU at birth and if found to have it need to avoid foods high in phenylalanine.

For its part, the food and beverage industry defends aspartame as adding nothing worse to your body than the methanol found in fruit juice, but food scientists counter that fruit juice contains protective antioxidants, vitamins, and natural phytochemicals that prevent methanol from turning into formaldehyde, while aspartame does not.

Italian study links aspartame to a wide range of cancers in lab animals

A study in the lab done in Italy and well known in the states, linked aspartame to "a wide range of cancers," reports The Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dr. Morando Soffritti conducted what is known as the Ramazzini study using 1,800 rats over a thirty-six-month period. The animals were exposed to different doses of aspartame over their lifetime and depending on doses, developed an array of cancers including leukemia, lymphoma, and kidney cancer.

The researchers concluded that aspartame has the potential to cause cancer in humans at levels far below what is considered safe by the US government. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the FDA to immediately review the study. "If FDA concludes that aspartame does cause cancer in animals, the agency is required by law to revoke its approval for the controversial sweetener." That was about 15 years ago. Nothing happened.

Even before that study, a 1977 study of 196 infant mice exposed to aspartame found that 98 of the animals died after exposure. The findings of that study were shared with the Food and Drug Administration and the results were part of a document known as the Bressler Report. Regardless, aspartame got approved. The evidence doesn't seem to have mattered.

The FDA's purpose is to keep our food system safe. It may be that this job has been ceded to the consumer. The jury may still be out on whether aspartame only causes cancer in rats, or if it has the same effect on humans. Until we know for sure, you may want to add good old-fashioned sugar to your iced tea. Or drink carbonated water with a little squeeze of fruit juice.