Aspartame and E. coli, oh my!

A “news item” recently came across my Facebook page which has a pretty remarkable claim:aspartame is made from E.coli feces!
The even more remarkable thing: That it’s true. Sort of.

Here’s how it is worded in the entry (from the blog of a maker of various supplements, including an energy drink) that made the rounds on Facebook:

Apparently the E. coli are grown in tanks and, as they defecate, their fecal matter is harvested because it contains aspartic acid-phenylalanine amino acid –the protein needed to make the aspartame. These fecal proteins are then treated with methanol to produce the artificial sweetener.

The primary source is actually a NaturalNews article which described the production process. If you read the NaturalNews article, which quotes from the aspartame production patent, it’s easy to see that already the “Gnarly” version has misstated the truth. The “Gnarly” article implies that, through some amazing coincidence, E. Coli just happen to produce the aspartic acid-phenylalanine mix and that Ajinmoto (Ajinmoto acquired aspartame from Monsanto in 2000) needs to make aspartame. And yet their own article mentions that it is “GM” (scary!) E.coli, so it’s clear that it’s not e.coli in its natural form.

The NaturalNews article directly quotes from the abstract of the patent (emphasis mine):

The artificial sweetener aspartame, a dipeptide with the formula Asp-Phe-me, is produced using a cloned micrcorganism. A DNA which codes for a large stable peptide comprised of the repeating amino acid sequence (Asp-Phe)n is inserted into a cloning vehicle which in turn is introduced into a suitable host microorganism. The host microorganism is cultured and the large peptide containing the repeating Asp-Phe sequence is harvested therefrom…”

So it turns out to be true that the components of aspartame are harvested from E.coli, though actually the patent mentions E.coli, Bacillus subtilis and E.coli K12 strain (harmless).

The author of the NaturalNews article says “common sense dictates that this abomination doesn’t belong anywhere near our bodies”. Does it? Should we be scared?

No, not really. First of all, the word “fecal” is a bit loaded here as it carries the connotation of being analogous to human waste. As a friend so amazingly put it, it’s really only the same in the sense that “we are breathing tree excrement”.

But even getting that out of the way, shouldn’t we be worried that aspartame is made using E.coli? Isn’t that just absolutely disgusting?

Only if you want to think of it that way. The process used is standard now as E.coli is the primary organism used for recombinant DNA processes. So this “excrement” or “fecal matter” is really just proteins made based on modified DNA. Or as stated in the 1981 patent:

It is known that the nucleotide base sequence GAC comprises a codon for aspartic acid (Asp). It is also known that the nucleotide base sequence TTT comprises a codon for phenylalanine (Phe) . Inserting such codons in the DNA of a microorganism, preceded and followed by appropriate processing or termination codons, under appropriate control, and in the correct reading frame, would result in the microorganism producing the dipeptide Asp-Phe as part of its own protein producing processes.

Basically, awesome, awesome science in action (and this patent is from 1981, the process is probably improved by now).

So are the manufacturers of aspartame wile rogues in the area of using E.coli to produce food-grade material.

Not in the slightest.

As a 2013 study notes:

In fact, microbes are widely used for the biosynthesis of numerous valuable molecules such as antitumor, anticancer, antiviral, antiparasitic, antioxidant, immunological, agents, antibiotics and hormones” and that “Currently, Escherichia coli, on one hand, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, on the other hand, are employed for the microbial synthesis of almost all natural products of interest.

While aspartame isn’t “natural”, aspartic acid and phenylalanine are.

As of 2009, there were 151 “recombinant pharmaceuticals” approved by FDA produced using yeast and bacteria (e.coli). As that one points out: “The enterobacterium E. coli is the first-choice microorganism for the production of recombinant proteins, and widely used for primarily cloning, genetic modification and small-scale production for research purposes.”

For example, multiple forms of insulin (Humulin, Novolin, Humalog, Apidra) intended to be nearly identical to human insulin (hence their names) are produced using e.coli. Prior to the early 1980s, animal insulin was used.

So aspartame may have been one of the earlier uses of this form of biotechnology to produce complex molecules, but it is in no sense alone in it. This is not “yet another” example of how Monsanto is trying to kill us all through their wily ways (especially since they didn’t invent aspartame in the first place, but got it with their purchase of Searle). Rather, it’s an “in your face” example of some of the amazing things that science can do. How cool is it that they can insert synthesized DNA into an organism and have it produce the proteins that we want?!

About Josh DeWald

I am a software engineer, husband and parent of two. I have been involved in the Skeptical movement for a few years now, especially since having children and so needing to fight pseudoscience related to parenting (vaccines, homeopathy, etc). I've been fortunate to attend TAM twice with my wife (who is also of a Skeptical bent). I also have a blog known as "What Does the Science Say?" (whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com), where I have an odd habit of writing a lot about aspartame.
This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories, Health, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to Aspartame and E. coli, oh my!

  1. Jake M. Gad says:

    When I first saw a friend link this article, I offered to take him out to lunch and point out everything there that I knew was bacteria poop.
    He was OK with not eating beef (cows need bacteria in their stomach to digest grass), fake sugar (see above), and chewing gum (phenylanine). Insulin made him pause, but say “I’m sure tehre’s a way to work around that.” Honey being Bee Vomit, he was OK with.
    Pointing out that, by the same standards as Aspartame being bacteria poop, Oxygen is “tree poop” finally made him realize how ridiculous it was.

    Some people can be helped.

    • Reg. says:

      If we shouldn’t eat stuff that smells bad, why are Roquefort and Stilton blue cheeses so delicious? Are we attracted to the fragrance of copious bacterial farts?

      Which raises another tasteless question, why are our own farts less objectionable than those of others? Admit it ladies go on…..

      • Karolyn says:

        Ya got me there, Reg, Yes, it is odd that we love our own body smells, but those of other people we find offensive.

      • Jon Richfield says:

        Long story there Reg. Quite a lot of chemicals that are violent stenches in very, very low doses, are either acquired tastes, or very pleasant in ultra-low doses, like parts per million or billion. Consider skatole for example.

        • Reg. says:

          Thanks Jon, you have urged me into finding the following evil smelling script. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2003/10/14/958463.htm

          I suppose if there was a pill that made siht smell like roses, rose growers would object and the bottom would quickly drop out of the business.

          There are lots of Dragons Breaths in the singing industry and I just hope mine is not one. Now THERE Jon is a lucrative missed business opportunity; a breath tester that rates kisser-ability as most affectionate or run for the hills. I’m mean, at face value, some of those people would have to be judged as just plain TOXIC.

          To read that this stuff is used as a perfume fixer helps explain my violent migraine reaction to certain after-shave lotions and passing Mediterranean attractants like camel smegma.

          A touchy subject but a man’s got to face it or die trying like a craven stick-insect. 🙂

          • Jon Richfield says:

            Reg, I should warn you that I have suffered all my rapidly shortening life from hemi-semi-demiterminal gullibility. To give you some idea, I once nearly let myself get talked into thinking that I might be wrong about something. So for example, I find myself wondering how literally to take your “Mediterranean attractants like camel smegma”.
            I did however read your link with interest. Thank you.
            In return however, I assure you that there a lot of threshold and secondary threshold effects in sensory physiology, and even in other physiology. Even the physiology of CO2 is complex; up to a point you need a bit to stimulate your breathing reflexes. A bit more and it makes you pant desperately. A bit more still, and it becomes a dangerous anaesthetic. And skatole in case you didn’t know, is essentially a methyindole isomer. They both smell faecal at very low concentrations, and fine at ridiculously low concentrations. (Lower for skatole than indole, I reckon. )
            We bought some very good Australian clothes pegs some time ago. Would it be reasonable for me to begin to wonder whether they were developed in response to a local need?
            Just wondering… 😉

          • Reg. says:

            Actually your observation about the pegs and CO2 are very relevant to my current pursuit Jon, this is one of deriving an objective method of teaching vocal support. Now you’re puzzled eh? Mine is a three level description and I just know you’re about to dazzled my the second stage which involves the muscles of the Transversus Abdominis and the Rectus Abdominis adopting the task of restraining the viscereal compressing derived by the descending diaphragm just before it dozes off. Still there?

            Here’s the amazing bit. Once this restraint is achieved, by using those muscles to maintain the outward distention of the epigastric zone, you can hold your breath for ages without resorting to any kind of peg what-so-ever. Tho CO2 build-up becomes important in a lung capacity of 7 litres but the minute use of the air in the vocal process ensures that the CO2 is mixed and does nor restrict access to oxygen at the absorbing surface. Do you know anything about muscles? I need a muscle specialist BAD.

            Skatole smelling salts may bring on a quick demonstration of what I’m talking about. Or a bottle of horse urine left in the Sun for a week. Ah yes, I recall that draft-horse urine did not need such aging.

            … and of course, inability to wonder is the end of the road eh? Tick!

          • Jon Richfield says:

            Reg, so am I to understand that by appropriate abdominal gymnastics you can emulate a set of bagpipes vocally without breathing through your ears? I don’t get the CO2 bit though; I realise that some guys can teach themselves physiologically outrageous CO2 tolerance irrespective of their blood pH, but …
            Hmmm… carbonic anhydrase athletics?
            Hmmmmm…

          • Reg. says:

            uuummm emulating bagpipes. Well the build up of CO2 makes one want to take a breath as I understand it, so hopefully one would be singing on a stream of CO2 thereby conserving oxygen for life giving purposes.

            Can you breathe through you ears? I’m impressed.

    • Anonymous says:

      when you eat something poop from their butt let me know so then I can trust your view. Ecoli creates Aspartame which actually has server side affects so I don’t care where it came from I care what it creates in people life and oxygen isn’t man made which is the problem in the first place.

    • Reg says:

      Without searching out the statement again, Dr Karl contends that an equal quantity of orange juice produces five or was it ten time the amount of aspartame that a bottle of Coke Zero contains. If I wasn’t so stonkered on brandy and lime I’d go and look.

    • Robyn says:

      The Bees and Trees do it Naturally, and are Not MADE to be this way by Some MAD SCIENTIST! While I LOVE HONEY & TREES, I am NOT GOING FOR GMO…If I can Help it!

  2. Doug Mathias says:

    just today I had a fabulous meal made from long orange fibrous roots grown in a combination of avian metabolic by-products, rotting cellulose from forest plants, and a god-knows-what combination of silts, sludges and various unidentified minerals. I must tell you that organically-grown carrots from soil enriched with composted chicken manure just can’t be beat!

  3. Moral Dolphin says:

    Good to see you back on line Josh..

    I was waiting for you to mention insulin all the way through the article.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Good to be back 🙂

      When this popped up in my Facebook, insulin came up almost immediately as one of the products. Of course, my article would have been utterly unnecessary had the NaturalNews and “gnarly” authors spent 3 seconds in Google scholar

  4. Jon Richfield says:

    Liked the article. Deadly, tediously, bored with the topic. Why is it bad to swallow microbe crap but good to swallow the poisonous crap put out by ignorant, dishonest, illogical, smug, shrill, nature-abusing “natural-product” peddlers…

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Natural is always good, right?

      • Jon Richfield says:

        Can’t remember the country, but a news item from years ago springs to mind: two schoolgirls heard (correctly) that you can get high on morning glory seeds. They ate some and nearly died, but were rescued in the ER. (Details lacking). Once they came round and were asked what the devil they said that they thought the seeds were natural and therefore good for you or something of the kind. By stretching my tiny mind I can think of a few completely natural things (substances; let’s not call them chemicals. I never have had any profit debating the word with any naturopathypathic partisans) that would have saved the ER the trouble.

  5. The Locke says:

    As soon as you said “The primary source is actually a NaturalNews article” I felt there was no longer a need to continue reading as it was obvious whomever wrote the original article was either blatantly lying and/or had no idea what they were talking about (as is the case for anyone who writes for NaturalNews).

    • Josh DeWald says:

      I wish it were the case that everyone felt that way about NN. But as I found in my previous article, it’s within the top 1000 web sites. Scary.

      • The Locke says:

        Scary indeed, although some people might be going there either to monitor what is being posted on there, or to get a good laugh at the blatant pseudoscience and outright lies.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Trust me mate, you are talking about the negligible minority. Something has created a self-perpetuating feedback process that maintains billions of people tuned to swallow self-indulgent mental poison like that, much as they swallow recognised and largely prohibited drugs. Those who propagate it profit from it, so they would no more willingly abandon their parasitism than you would abandon science and sense.
          And their victims die praising them and cursing science.
          There are disadvantages to being descended from monkeys.
          We would have done better being descended from termites.

  6. Johnny says:

    Great story, however personally I actively avoid phenylalanine/aspartame. Not because it’s un-natural, but because it tastes bloody awful!

    For years I was getting a vile acrid aftertaste from things I ate and drank, until I worked out it was the added sweeteners. Not nice at all.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Perfectly reasonable reason to avoid aspartame, or anything really. Phenylalanine seems more difficult to avoid I would think, as it’s naturally occurring in some foods.

  7. DragonLady says:

    The label “natural” is not a comprehensive signal that whatever it is will be good for you. The label “artificial/manufactured/chemical” is not a comprehensive signal that whatever it is will be bad for you.

    Cyanide is a natural substance produced in plants that discourages insects from feeding on the plant. Anybody out there want a cyanide cocktail? (Raw elderberry juice will do it.)

    Celox is an artificial rapid blood clotting product included in law enforcement emergency medical supplies. Anybody want to refuse to use it when the cop dumps a big wad of it on your lacerated femoral artery after you have cleverly shot yourself in the leg? (Laceration of a major artery can let you bleed out and die in under two minutes if not contained.)

    For all those out there with working brain cells, don’t let psuedo-science determine your choices. There is lots of reference material out there to use in making intelligent decisions. Read and cross reference. (I don’t need to tell you that.)

    For all those out there who have a knee-jerk panic attack at every scare tactic headline you read, remember that 100% of people die. Eventually.

    And, no, aspartame wil not make you lose weight. Consuming fewer calories and exercising makes you lose weight.

  8. davidambrose66 says:

    Excellent article and great comments. Thanks to your efforts to combat fake information and false reports. There is so much absolute crap on the net, this site is needed more than ever.
    Keep up the great work folks. Science trumps superstition.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Please, for god’s sake, proof your copy! Your punctuation mistakes degrade your message.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Point taken 🙂 Normally my wife (or someone else) reviews everything, but wasn’t able to make that happen this time around.

    • Anonymous says:

      Ironicly, “god” when used in this context should be a proper noun.

      • Reg. says:

        True!

        True!

        Apart from which the misplaced apostrophe implies that there are things that do not belong to God and as such would be offensive to the believer, so this is the one situation where an apostrophe s should never be used. Gods belongings? 🙂

        • Linz says:

          No, the apostrophe is correct. Saying that a particular thing belongs to God doesn’t imply that there are things that don’t. That’s very strange logic there. An ‘s should be used whenever something belongs to something or someone else, end of. “Gods belongings” makes no sense.

          • Reg says:

            Don’t be a silly Billy Linz, if you feel a necessity to assign possession to God then the clear implication is that there must be other stuff that does not belong to God. Sorry if my logic clashes with yours.

            Of course Gods belongings makes no sense, nor does God’s belongings which is why I included the question mark.

            Say after me, irony; … I … ron … E

          • Doug Mathias says:

            you guys should get a room. The use of the “God” metaphor is a lexical construct which assumes the at-least-hypothetical existence of God, which is capitalized because of what it represents in the construct, i.e., some sort of Supreme Being. For those who choose to use this construct (whether or not one agrees with its accurate reflection in the “real world”), the reference can be limited to whichever of God’s belongings you are choosing to discuss at that time with no reference to anything else that may or may not belong to “God”.
            btw, the expression is “silly-Billy”, hyphenated in this context so as to prevent confusion as to which noun is being modified. The judicious use of a comma after “Billy” would also clean up this clumsy construct.
            btw (2), I think it was 62,569 angels dancing on the head of that medieval pin . . .

          • Anonymous says:

            Does the god own the sake? Maybe it should say “for the sake of God” instead? I would like to believe that if The God, or a god, or the gods, is (are) reading this, then they would be more interested in the underlying essence and sentiment of the message rather than the punctuation, (except maybe when people don’t use the Oxford comma … and if there’s the inappropriate use of ellipses, because if I was God that would annoy the living Hell out of me).

            Therefore, I propose that it might have been more constructive to say “for the sake of clarity please proof your copy”.

          • Karolyn says:

            Shouldn’t the comma be inside the quotes for “silly-Billy?”

          • Reg. says:

            What’s this I read from the anonymous one?

            He, she or it is concerned for the welfare of god? How quaint. I am not one to ask but I’m led to believe by some devious subterfuge that nothing annoys god. If this is so, does it also mean that god does not care?

          • Reg. says:

            Actually you wrong about the billy can too Doug, a silly billy is one that has been kicked from pillar to post and refuses to sit straight while leaking ever so slowly.

            You know the type. 🙂

      • Doug Mathias says:

        and, even more ironically, “ironicly” is misspelled . . .

  10. Joel Pino says:

    Josh-

    Just wanted to say thanks for pointing out our (my) mistakes. We posted a follow-up blog that talks about what we should have done better. You’ll probably still not agree with the position taken, but I did want to let you know that we’re aware we fudged this one. We’re not in the business of trying to negatively hype-up some science news by misleading people that read our blog. More research should have been done. We remain anti-aspartame, if only because it isn’t a natural sweetener. And, reading some of your other articles on here, I know you have issue with the term “natural” as well, but that’s who we are.

    Just to clarify, Natural News wasn’t the primary source for the info, I did look at their article though and their stuff did end up in the finished blog. That was one of my first posts and I should have researched where I was getting my info from better. It didn’t take me long to learn that Natural News is a bit too slanted to rely on for good info. Anyway, this is a lesson learned. I appreciate your in-depth response. Your’s and other feedback we received has definitely made us much more aware of the responsibility we have in posting content.

    -Joel Pino
    Gnarly Nutrition
    joel@gognarly.com

    If you’re interested, here’s the link to the follow-up blog:

    http://gognarly.com/blog/our-responsibility-as-a-nutrition-company-that-blogs/

    -Thanks again

    • Josh DeWald says:

      Joel –
      Thanks for the response!
      I am indeed not a huge fan of the term “natural” as I think it is effectively meaningless, saying nothing about the safety, efficacy, or really anything about the ingredient.

      Regarding aspartame in general, the really doesn’t exist much in the way of evidence against it’s safety. As you noted in your response, it is very well researched. And that research supports it’s safety.

      I will fully acknowledge that we all have our biases though and I’d be happy (genuinely) to change my position of the weight of evidence reverses.

  11. Stephen says:

    You should look into the history of Aspartame. What company created it and what its initial purpose was. Not to mention how absolutely horrible it is for your body.

  12. Tim X says:

    Regardless of anything else that might be said about this stuff, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to be putting any artificial chemical in your body. The body does know the difference; It will treat anything like this as a foreign invader, and if it can’t eliminate it, it will store it (usually in fat cells) to try and sequester it. Does it cause cancer, MS, etc.? If it does, it wouldn’t do so directly, which is part of why no direct link has been found. But years of abusing your body with chemicals of any kind could conceivably cause one to develop any number of diseases, simply from the prolonged chemical stress to the body.

  13. pcove39 says:

    Yes its interesting science, but the neurotoxic effects of methanol in the bloodstream is enough for me to conclude that this article is politely downplaying the dangers of consuming this poison. Aspartame is but one of the many genocidal tactics that the people of this earth are forced to endure. Articles like this make me sick. Enjoy that beemer douche bag.

    • Josh DeWald says:

      >”Enjoy the beemer douche bag”

      Nice, that really adds to the discussion. I’ve left your comment here because I think it’s a nice example of a comment that simply attacks without bringing anything substantive to the discussion. Care to clarify the “dangers” you’re speaking of? Through the 300+ comments already on this article (and my others, reachable via the “Aspartame” link at the top) you can see that I’ve actually looked into many of these supposed dangers. You can choose to disregard that research, but simply making unsourced claims adds nothing.

      But really the most insulting part is the “enjoy that beemer” statement, the obvious implication being that I’m somehow in the pay of someone (not sure who exactly), which I definitely am not (I have no way of convincing you). Ms. Martini has not stooped to making such a claim, and she clearly has a very strong disagreement with my views.

      EDIT: I just realized this comment was not on my other site http://whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com, where Ms. Martini has commented frequently and I have the link to my “Aspartame” content page.

    • Sheogorath says:

      @ pcove39: But are the neurotoxic effects of methanol in the bloodstream enough to get you to quit drinking alcohol, hmm? I can’t consume aspartame because of its method of manufacture (I’m sensitive to A1 beta casein), but I would if I could because I know that the amount of methanol in it is a millionth part of what’s in a bottle of WKD, which I also have no personal issue with consuming.

  14. E. coli is in your guts RIGHT NOW(hopefully)! it’s an important part of your gut flora
    so what is the problem then???

  15. tbran says:

    So formaldehyde is a healthy daily choice for my body, yeah right.

    • Eric Hall says:

      Do you ever eat fruit? Pears contain about 20-30 times the formaldehyde as you would get metabolizing a diet soda. So don’t eat fruit! It is bad for you! /sarcasm

  16. husna says:

    pure oxygen in that sense is really a poison…..and so is sweet poison, poison!!!

  17. Sheogorath says:

    Not really that odd, if you think about it. We tend to find certain smells extremely offensive so we know to get away from them so they don’t cause us illness. Of course, there are certain smells you can’t get away from like those of your own urine and faeces, so your body has to get used to them so you don’t vomit every time you use the toilet through being physically unable to escape the smell. It’s just basic human survival instincts.

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