I watched a documentary called Hungry for Change that claimed pilot associations advise avoiding diet soda due to the aspartame sweetener inhibiting motor skills and killing brain cells.
Is this true?
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I can't find any explicit FAA banning of Aspartame by the FAA so its most likely hype and pseudo science. The FAA did republish an article in one of their briefs that lists it as a food to eat (but they state its not their full official position). This article also states the FAA has no opinion on the matter.
However, the FAA does hold the position that you as the pilot in command are responsible, to some extent for your own health (your chosen airline may also have policy on this). If you as the PIC know that you respond poorly to aspartame then you are responsible for avoiding it. The FDA seems to have done some research on the adverse effects of it and they are at least existent.
I've never gotten anything to this effect from my airline nor pilot union, and they'd better start stocking cans of unsweetened Snapple if they were to push this, because I don't like coffee & I most certainly don't want to be drinking lots of sugary sodas to get my caffeine fix in the morning!
There are many pilots particularly from the 1980s and 1990s that have spoken about their experiences of adverse reactions through ingesting aspartame in diet products. In those days a warning was put out that consuming these products do, in some people, cause side effects. The General Aviation News reported "pilot George E. Leighton experienced blurred vision so severe he was unable to read instruments on his panels and narrowly avoided a tragic landing after consuming two cups of NutraSweetened hot chocolate prior to his flight." Other pilots who have lost their medical licence because of seizures, tremours and other debilitating effects, have also given warnings about aspartame ingestion. Pilots such as Captain Harold Wilson, Pilot Haynes Dunn, Texas pilot Charles King and Captain Jim Sells. More recently, you may remember Captain Clayton Osbon flying JetBlue who had a psychotic episode during a flight in March 2012. He was ridiculed, vilified and his character destroyed for a mental episode that was completely out of his control. He was known to consume diet products on a regular basis and in fact actually promoted these products. He is now suing the airline for not pulling him from the flight after he showed obvious signs of being mentally distressed before he boarded the plane. Aspartame was passed for human consumption in 1981, under a cloud of fraud and deception with Ronald Rumsfeld at the helm of the company G D Searle who discovered the chemical concoction. It consists of aspartic acid, phenylanaline (two amino acids) and methanol. Each of these molecules are toxic in their own right. I would recommend that pilots and crew who ingest diet sodas, chew gum, put equal or other aspartame powders in their drinks or sprinkle aspartame powders on their food, beware. Look out for adverse reactions such as headaches, tremours, anxiety, confusion, vision problems, depression, insomnia, dizziness, memory loss, seizures, palpitations to name a few. There are 92 recorded side effects. If you get any of these effects, try stopping aspartame and see if the effects disappear. I have been researching aspartame for a long time now and apart from the dubious way it was passed for consumption, the chemical makeup of this molecule can cause problems for some people. Unfortunately, the warnings that were once given out to pilots, have now been forgotten but it is obvious that pilots are having problems either through fatigue or fatigue exacerbated by aspartame consumption. I can't believe that all the 'pilot errors' that are reported with accident investigations are because of incompetent pilots. There's something else going on. If you're a pilot, perhaps it would be best to err on the side of caution and avoid this sweetener. By the way, it won't help you get slim either! From 1994-2014, there have been 344 commercial aircraft incidents (16,490 fatalities). Out of those, over half have been put down to pilot error and nearly 60 to human error. If there's just a chance you may be affected by this chemical, wouldn't it be prudent not to consume it? If just one of those 344 incidents was because of aspartame, it's not worth taking the risk that you may have an adverse reaction whilst in the cockpit. Ches Power