The Truth About Aspartame and Your Health

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diet-sodaA quick online search of Aspartame will provide you with numerous opinions about this artificial sweetener.  Some claim it causes things like cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis, lupus, memory problems and brain tumors.  Just about every governmental organization in the world, regulating food products, have deemed it safe for human consumption. (But, you know, just about every governing body in the world still gets the “sodium raises blood pressure” myth wrong, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, so let’s not take their word on the whole Aspartame thing!)

In an attempt to provide some sanity to the controversy, let’s take an in-depth look at this sweet, supposed compound-of-death and see if we can’t make sense of the madness.

Aspartame was first developed by G.D. Searle and Co in 1965.  In 1974, it gained approval from the FDA as a food additive.  The benefit of using Aspartame over sugar is the result of how sweet it is.  Sugar and Aspartame both produce about 4 calories per gram.  Aspartame, however, is about 180 times sweeter than sugar.  Thus, you need much less to get the same perception of sweetness.  This is the reason it works so well as a low-calorie sweetener.

Aspartame is made of the two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and the alcohol, methanol.  All of the health concerns regarding this sweet supplement are a result of what those three things can do to the body.

The question then becomes, do the three parts of Aspartame cause health problems?  The quick answer is yes, at high enough levels they do, but please don’t stop reading here- the quick answer isn’t the whole answer.

So if high doses of Aspartame are harmful, why are they allowed in our food?

It turns out, low doses aren’t harmful and we even need those amino acids to perform certain functions within the body.  In fact, phenylalanine and aspartic acid are either produced by our bodies from many other foods, or are already found naturally in our diets.

Methanol, more commonly known as wood-alcohol, is definitely not needed by our bodies.  If you’re wondering why it’s allowed in Aspartame, it’s because it’s already found in many drinks like wine, whiskey and beer.  As you might guess from the fact that humans have been ingesting these for ages, at low levels, it seems methanol has no long term consequences.

That said, anything we take into our bodies in high enough doses can be harmful.  Arguably, the most basic of human needs is water.  Even water in high doses can kill you, in what is being called water-intoxication.  An effect that leads to inadequate amounts of salt in your blood, called hyponatremia. While you may think this would never happen, over the course of my career as a paramedic, I’ve actually been on calls and seen people die as a result of drinking too much water.  Exactly how this can take place and more specifically what is going on in the body is a topic for another article, though, as this one’s already really long!

In the end, almost everything we take in needs to fall within a certain range to be beneficial, or at the least not overly harmful.  Some things even in miniscule doses can be deadly.  For many others, it takes large doses to have lasting negative effects.  The phrase, everything in moderation, comes to mind here.

Since we already have Aspartame’s three ingredients in many of the foods we eat, the question of Aspartame’s safety is more appropriately: are the levels found in Aspartame, and the dose you may be ingesting, high enough to cause unwanted health effects?

To answer that, I’ll need to go into a little more depth on the aforementioned three things that make up Aspartame.

Aspartic acid is one of the many amino acids that help make the numerous proteins our bodies use.  It helps the liver by aiding in the removal of ammonia, and is involved in the production of anti-bodies created by the immune system.  It can be found in many different types of foods like asparagus, avocado’s, sugar beets, sausages, and molasses.

Too much aspartic acid can be seen in several different disease processes like: Lou Gehrig’s disease, Epilepsy, and certain strokes.  Unfortunately for those fighting against Aspartame, the levels seen in these conditions are several fold higher than can be achieved by eating Aspartame at recommended amounts.   There has also never been a direct cause and effect shown between these diseases and increased aspartic acid intake.

Methanol, in general, does result in some unwanted reactions within the body.  Specifically, it’s taken up by the cells of the body and the production of formaldehyde and formic acid are the result.  Formaldehyde at high levels will cause proteins to form abnormally. The result is proteins that no longer function.

Formic acid, at high levels, will cause abnormal metabolic processes within cells, causing them to cease functioning.  The result is death to that cell due to a lack of energy.  This is because it disrupts the organelle responsible for a cells metabolism, known as your mitochondria.  Some cells within the body are extremely sensitive to formic acid, specifically the ones in the optic nerve.  This is why blindness is associated with methanol poisoning.

So does Aspartame produce enough methanol to harm people?  Probably not.  There are numerous other foods we eat every day that have the same, or higher, amounts of methanol than Aspartame.  Beer and wine aside, foods like tomatoes (and tomato juice), and citrus fruits and their associated juices are good examples here.

This brings us to the last ingredient of Aspartame, phenylalanine.  There is a rare disorder called Phenylketonuria affecting about 1 in 10,000 people.  This ailment leaves your body an inability to break down phenylalanine.  Left untreated, toxic levels of phenylalanine build up.  The results can be things like developmental disorders, cardiac rhythm problems, seizures and severe learning disabilities.

Fortunately, most babies born in the developed world are tested for this disorder and treatment usually involves diet control.  Diet control because there are many foods that contain higher levels of phenylalanine than Aspartame.  Specifically, the many different types of proteins we take in.  Knowing this disorder exists, the FDA requires that Aspartame products be labeled specifically for phenylketonuria patients.

Like any food additive evaluated by the FDA, there is an extensive process that takes place before manufacturers are allowed to put it in our foods.  When the FDA first approved Aspartame as an additive, there were numerous controversies surrounding its approval.  Those controversies revolved around the studies the FDA looked at, advocating Aspartame’s safety.  That said, since its initial distribution to the masses, there have been countless new studies performed looking at Aspartame’s safety.  Numerous other reviews of the research have been conducted by several agencies, including the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The most recent was conducted by the EFSA and issued on December 10, 2013.  That review looked at almost all studies performed on Aspartame, in animal and human alike.  Knowing there is such a large controversy surrounding the supplement, the EFSA’s independent panel of experts issued an open public call for any data, comments, or concerns on Aspartame.  According to Alicia Mortensen, chair of the EFSA’s panel, “This opinion represents one of the most comprehensive risk assessments of Aspartame ever undertaken.”

The panel concluded that Aspartame does not cause cancer at the levels consumed by humans, and it doesn’t cause problems during pregnancy.  Overall, “There were no safety concerns at the current ADI (acceptable daily intake) of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.”

For your reference, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there are on average about 180 mg of aspartame in a typical 12 ounce can of diet soda.  So an adult weighing 165 pounds would need to drink about 16 cans of diet soda per day to exceed the recommended limit, which itself is set drastically below dangerous thresholds. Specifically, according to the ACS, the acceptable daily intake is set at “about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns, based on studies done in lab animals.”  Not that you’d be able to in reality, but if you actually managed to drink 1,600 cans of diet soda in a day (one every 54 seconds), you’ll have much bigger problems than aspartame intake.

Even though the EFSA’s extremely comprehensive review should have put this issue to rest, there are researchers who still think they didn’t go far enough.

Erik Millstone, a science and food policy expert at the University of Sussex, UK, wrote an open letter to colleagues in response to the EFSA’s review.  In it, he states the panel knowingly ignored studies showing negative effects of Aspartame and deemed them unreliable.   All while the studies showing no ill effects were deemed reliable.

The initial question then still remains.  Does Aspartame have negative health effects? Some studies say it can and some say it can’t.  However, every study I could find showing negative effects did so at levels not normally consumed by any human. (They were also all animal studies.)  Again, even water will kill you if you drink too much of it.

In response to the numerous animal studies that did show an increase in health problems at high levels, Dr. David Hattan, acting director of the Division of Health Effects Evaluation in the FDA, states:

The legitimate attempts that have been made to confirm and replicate allegations of adverse reactions from Aspartame ingestion have not been successful and the USFDA continues to consider this to be among the most thoroughly tested of food additives and this information continues to confirm the safety of Aspartame.

In the end, at levels recommended by health safety experts, Aspartame has never been shown to result in negative health effects.  Should you want to get those unwanted health problems, according to animal studies, just consume an unrealistic amount of diet soft drinks on a daily basis for several years.

Just remember, you would get the same problems should you continually take in excessive amounts of things like beer, wines, red meats, tomatoes, and sugar beets over those same few years.  If you did, however, manage to drink this much soda, whether you drank it with Aspartame or sugar, you’re in for an awful lot of other health problems which will most likely kill you well before anything like cancer from Aspartame.

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30 Comments »

  1. CriticQ February 27, 2014 at 4:59 am - Reply

    Being a paramedic doesn’t mean you are an medical expert. This shows in the quite vague, non-specified terminology used. Sure, this is leisure reading at best, but still there should be more specified facts than “several fold higher than can be achieved by eating Aspartame at recommended amounts”.. This doesn’t tell us anything. The recommendation limits are under debate as well, already being not too high to be considered normal consumption.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey February 27, 2014 at 2:16 pm - Reply

      @CriticQ: As I’ve said elsewhere, the strength of his argument is not based on his medical knowledge, that just helps him be able to thoroughly vet and process the various studies on the subject, where others would even just get lost in the terminology alone, let alone methodology. The strength of his arguments are always in the studies themselves.

  2. Morten Prom February 27, 2014 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Fine article, very informing. But one question: Does the body “think” it receives more sugar than it does? And therefore produces more insulin, which then again causes all the trouble we are seeing with normal sugar?

  3. David Wheeler February 27, 2014 at 6:23 am - Reply

    Here’s a thing I heard about Aspartame from a person who claimed to personally know one of the chemists involved in its development. I don’t know whether this is provably true or not, I’ve never seen it addressed in rigorous terms.

    Supposedly Aspartame was designed as an additive for cold beverages, and its alleged negative health affects occur when it is used in coffee and other hot beverages, a development not foreseen by its originators.

    I can’t source it other than anecdotally, and it might well be one of those deeply-believed myths, but I’ve never seen this proposition addressed by any authority. I don’t know if I believe it, but I’m just putting it out there.

    This was a very good article, one of the best I’ve seen in the TIFO series.

  4. Dan O February 27, 2014 at 7:21 am - Reply

    The author of this post seems to have left out most of the horrible side effects possible from the overuse of aspartame. I recently stopped using this substance and the effects were immediate. My mood immediately lifted, my anxiety markedly decreased and my anger level went way down.If you google aspartame, one of the first things you will read is that 70% of the food related complaints the FDA receives a year are related to aspartame. Do your own research, try stopping for a few days and seeing if there are results for you and don’t think one article is going to give you a fair or complete understanding of any issue.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey February 27, 2014 at 2:04 pm - Reply

      @Dan O: I’m curious if you saw similar changes/effects when ceasing eating the other things that contain the three things aspartame is metabalized as in your body?

      • Dan O February 27, 2014 at 5:45 pm - Reply

        @Daven. I have only recently stopped using aspartame. I was drinking @ a gallon of the stuff a day for years. The results speak for themselves for me. I was having aspartame induced depression, anxiety and mood swings, as widely reported on by many people.And I only researched the side effects after I stopped using the stuff, at the suggestion of a health conscious friend. As to your question, there are 3 possible reasons why I am not still sick if I am eating things with the component parts of aspartame in them. 1. I have fallen below a toxic level in my blood. 2. The component ingredients of aspartame do not have the same effect when naturally occurring, as opposed to synthetic.3. these substances only become toxic in combination with each other. As I stated in my OP 70% of the food related complaints to the FDA are aspartame related. Is this article being sponsored by diet coke or something, because there is absolutely no balance to this piece.

        • Daven Hiskey
          Daven Hiskey February 27, 2014 at 5:52 pm - Reply

          @Dan O: “is this article being sponsored by diet coke or something?” Not at all, I personally can’t stand the taste of the stuff. ;-) Artificial sweeteners for me always leave a weird aftertaste.
          .
          “I was drinking @ a gallon of the stuff a day for years.” That’s 10-ish cans per day. Whew. That’s still well within the limit for aspartame intake, but that amount of ingestion of soda (aspartame or not) in general on a daily basis seems like it would cause some problems.

        • Chuck February 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm - Reply

          Caffeine can cause anxiety and depression, especially in high doses. A gallon per day of soda is about 5 cups of coffee worth of caffeine. Even if you weren’t also drinking any coffee, that’s an awful lot of caffeine and could have been the source of your problems. You said that you stopped drinking it after advice from a friend about aspartame, so confirmation bias might have you thinking it was the aspartame when it was actually cutting out all that caffeine that solved your problem.

          • Dan O February 27, 2014 at 7:31 pm -

            Yes, I thought of that.Soda, and especially cola is about the worst thing you can drink. I switched from soda to crystal light to caffeine free crystal light over the past few years. Before stopping the aspartame i was unable to drink coffee or caffeinated drinks due to anxiety. And a gallon of fluid a day is not out of the norm for most people. Think of it as a super big gulp and another smaller drink throughout the day. Also, I work out and need to keep hydrated and water just gets too boring for me. Funny thing is I switched to diet drinks to be more healthy. Its the aspartame that caused my problems, there is no other constant.

          • Gregg DesElms February 28, 2014 at 8:32 am -

            It’s amazing, actually, the people who don’t realize what’s got caffeine in it. They think that because it’s a diet cola, for example, that there’s no caffeine in it, addition to there being no sugar in it. Nothing could be further from the truth in most cases.

            The real offender is Barq’s root beer. Nearly no root beer in the world has caffeine in it…

            …except Barq’s; or, more accurately, the Barq’s in the fountain systems in restaurants. The Barq’s in bottles and cans may or may not have it; usually doesn’t. But nearly 100% of Barq’s in restaurants has caffeine in it. It’s root beer, for godsake: Why? (a rhetorical question, in need of no answer)

            Anyway, my point is, beware the things you never would have guessed have caffeine in them: Green tea, for example. People think it’s caffeine free, but some varieties of it have more caffeine than bitter old regular Liptons!

            Just sayin’.

            __________________________________
            Gregg L. DesElms
            Napa, California USA
            gregg at greggdeselms dot com

            Veritas nihil veretur nisi abscondi.
            Veritas nimium altercando amittitur.

  5. Jethro February 27, 2014 at 8:22 am - Reply

    So that covers blue. Any plans to do similar articles on pink (saccharine), yellow (sucralose), or green (stevia)?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey February 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm - Reply

      @Jethro: Yep. :-)

  6. Gregg DesElms February 27, 2014 at 10:45 am - Reply

    I’m sure that everything in this article is true and accurate…

    …but I, nevertheless, have not had good luck with aspartame; though any negative reactions have been so minor that it’s no big deal.

    Basically, aside from being a taste that I just can’t get used to (that said, in some soft drinks, like Diet Dr. Pepper, it’s tolerable), Aspartame can cause, in me, at least, very mild gastrointestinal discomfort and sometimes even diarrhea… at least if I drink more than a single serving-at-a-time of, say, diet soda, for example.

    And I confess that it doesn’t always happen. I have, though, found others in comments beneath articles, or forum postings, etc., who have similar symptoms.

    I’ve also found no shortage of what almost certainly has to be psychosomatic reactions to it; stuff that it just doesn’t make sense could happen in people…

    …and reading this article, especially, helps one to understand the hows and whys of that.

    Good article! Thanks!

    __________________________________
    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

    Veritas nihil veretur nisi abscondi.
    Veritas nimium altercando amittitur.

  7. John Fischer February 27, 2014 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    I’m sure the stuff is safe enough especially taken in context of everything else we ingest like “vitamin water” and “5-hour energy” drinks and Red Bull with Everclear (none of which are provided with an MSDS sheet). The real health hazard… for me, anyway…. is the physical reaction I have to the hideous taste.

    I recently had to start taking PeptoBismol. First tablespoon made me gag and I had to spit it out. Pepto Bismol is now sweetened with artificial sweetner (no labeling) and is absolutely GROSS. (Took it back to pharmacy for a refund and sent a stern memo to P&G)

    Whatever happened to the idea that artificial sweeteners can actually cause weight gain? That idea have any traction?

  8. Chris February 27, 2014 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    I have a high intake level in my opinion of Aspartame on a daily basis. Specifically one or two 2 Liter bottles of diet soda, and six to twelve packets of Equal with coffee. Also one or two Tbsp of sugar free flavoring syrup for my coffee.

    I hate drinking plain water, so these are my primary liquids. It has been years, so I am wondering if this really is a dangerous level and what can I expect for side effects?

    • tess March 3, 2014 at 12:33 am - Reply

      You need to stop! I drunk diet coke in GALLONS as a teenager and ended up in hospital with toxic shock due to what it did to my young body. I also lost a lot of weight when I stopped artificial sweeteners, and you will learn to not miss the taste of it once you stop. Plain ‘water’, or coffee and tea, becomes a lot more flavoursome if you give your tastebuds a break from sugar/fake sugar.

  9. Alfred Miller,M.D. February 28, 2014 at 10:28 am - Reply

    In 1987 US Senator Metzenbaum of Ohio convened a Senate Committee to investigate Aspartame.
    As a practicing physician I was asked to testify because several of my patients were developing debilitating headaches after consuming Aspartame.
    Dr. Wortman from Harvard testified that in his research laboratory animals the seizure threshold was lowered with resulting seizures.
    An Air Force pilot testified that he could no longer pilot a plane due to seizures caused by Aspartame consumption.
    An Emory University Pediatrician testified that the placenta concentrated the Aspartame in the pregnant mother’s blood 200%-300% and dumped this concentrated Aspartame into the fetus resulting in potential congenital neurological abnormalities.
    An FDA toxicologist testified that the animal studies to verify the safety of Aspartame were severely flawed and not valid.
    Senator Metzenbaum noted that Aspartame was not approved by the medical committee on several occasions. Senator Metzenbaum then noted that Aspartame was finally approved only after a new head of the FDA was appointed. Furthermore, that FDA official responsible for the final approval of Aspartame was now working full time for Aspartame.
    The negative testimonies against Aspartame began at 9A.M. and continued until the committee adjourned at 6 P.M.
    After several months no action resulted.
    I asked Senator Metzenbaum why nothing occurred – his answer was “Politics”.
    The Aspartame political clout was too powerful.
    In my practice I continued to have patients with Aspartame related symptoms – i.e. head aches, seizures, emotional conditions – all responded to cessation of the Aspartame.
    Alfred Miller,M.D.

    • Matt May 23, 2014 at 7:30 am - Reply

      I used to chew a few pieces of gum a day that contained aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners. I started noticing that headaches became more frequent. Once I eliminated the gum from my diet, the headaches disappeared. My wife noticed the same thing, and now neither of us chew gum and rarely get headaches.

  10. Alfred Miller,M.D. February 28, 2014 at 4:24 pm - Reply
  11. Scott March 3, 2014 at 9:25 am - Reply

    @ Dr. Miller- Thank you for your input. It is always nice to get people who were involved with actual investigations regarding the topics we write about. Thank you for the study link. I do have some problems with your statements however. The first being; you stated
    “An FDA toxicologist testified that the animal studies to verify the safety of Aspartame were severely flawed and not valid.”,

    Why then sir would you point to an animal study to prove your point?

    In the article we pointed out how controversial the FDA approval for aspartame was. Every point you made just confirmed this controversy. Since the controversy you speak of was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I would love to get your opinion on the EFSA report done just last year in 2013. This was not done by the US FDA, as you have stated you feel the FDA was biased, and it has been stated as the most in-depth look at aspartame ever conducted. With this in mind, do you also feel this report is false? If so, why?

    You have stated that you continue to see patients that complain of
    “ i.e. head aches, seizures, emotional conditions – all responded to cessation of the Aspartame.”

    Since most of those conditions are subjective, and humans all have a confirmation bias, Do you feel these individual, subjective, reports invalidate the countless studies that say aspartame is safe?

    Also, did you account for the numerous other things in the foods and drinks containing aspartame, like caffeine? If current studies are to be believed, all of those symptoms could also be explained by the cessation of using caffeine.

  12. Dan O March 3, 2014 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    If anything, it seems like the authors of this piece are suffering from confirmation bias. No information, whether first hand, from doctors or study based are enough to sway the authors from their original conclusions. Lets blame confirmation bias, and if that doesn’t work lets blame caffeine.
    Since stopping aspartame. I have been able to reintroduce caffeine into my diet with no detrimental effects. Aspartame is poison, at least to a large segment of the population, and in high doses. Try removing it from your diet for a week or two to see if you are being affected before you dismiss it as a harmless substance. you have nothing to lose and your well being to gain.

    • James A (D.O.) March 3, 2014 at 4:46 pm - Reply

      If your “confirmation” of something is the result of scientific studies that aren’t flawed in some way, it really doesn’t matter if you’re personally biased or not.

  13. Alfred Miller,M.D. March 4, 2014 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    The FDA toxicologist, a PHD, listed the specific flaws invalidating the animal safety study.
    1) The identifying tags on the animals were not securely attached. These tags often became unattached and it was impossible to determine which animal was involved.
    2) The animal feed was poorly mixed. Many animals had varying intake of Aspartame – some almost none while others much more, however the actual intake was impossible to evaluate.
    The FDA toxicologist informed the head of the FDA of these deficiencies in the safety study yet they were totally ignored.
    The animal study in the link was a valid study and the conclusions are based on solid scientific evidence.
    The patients mentioned who were sensitive to Aspartame confirmed their symptoms with pure Aspartame.
    Alfred Miller,M.D.

  14. Scott March 10, 2014 at 8:26 am - Reply

    @ Dr. Miller, thank you for your response. It is always appreciated when we can get first hand accounts of the things we write about. Thank you for clarifying the animal studies. Can you now comment on the newest studies, Namely the EFSA review of aspartame? This is currently the latest review on the topic (published in 2013). It has also been touted as the most in-depth review on the subject. Since it comes from a source other than the FDA (as you have stated you felt the FDA was biased) and still claims aspartames safety, it would appear as though all of our claims are correct. Do you agree or disagree with this reviews conclusion, if so, why?

    Thanks again
    Scott

  15. Alfred Miller,M.D. March 10, 2014 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    In 1987, at the conclusion of the Senate Hearing on Aspartame, the president of the Aspartame company, Mr. Shapiro, distributed to the Senators, those who testified, and the press copies of an article which had just been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
    The article related the results of a new study performed at Duke University which attested to the safety of Aspartame and concluded no headaches were the result of Aspartame consumption.
    The article was peer reviewed and presumably valid.
    The study was very impressive.
    Reading the fine print – the study was conducted at Duke University in a facility provide by Aspartame and the study was funded by Aspartame.
    In the Spring of 1988, Letters To The Editor from Albert Einstein Medical School refuted those findings.
    If you search “Pubmed” for Aspartame studies there are many.
    The damaging effects of Aspartame are clearly documented – none are sponsored or paid for by Aspartame.
    In my Medical Practice for decades numerous patients suffered symptomatic side effects from “pure” Aspartame.
    Please don’t ask me to accept another “conclusive” study absolving Aspartame when my experiences over several decades is “conclusive” the opposite !

  16. Scott March 13, 2014 at 10:17 am - Reply

    @ Dr. Miller. Thank you again for your response. Whenever there are controversial subjects it is always great to get opposing opinions so that we can make informed decisions. That being said. The review we are speaking of is not a study, but rather a review of all studies ever done on aspartame. They also take testimony and comments from countless stakeholders on aspartame. Both for and against. It was done in 2013. It was done by the EFSA. We are not asking you to accept any study but rather comment on the EFSA’s conclusion. Given that their information is the most current available and not done and or performed over 20 years ago, we are interested in your take on current research, not research performed 20 years ago.

  17. Alfred Miller,M.D. March 13, 2014 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Aspartame is the same today as it was 20 years ago.
    This is an exert from EFSA report:

    “Following a thorough review of evidence provided both by animal and human studies, experts have ruled out a potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer. EFSA’s experts also concluded that aspartame does not harm the brain, the nervous system or affect behaviour or cognitive function in children or adults. With respect to pregnancy, the Panel noted that there was no risk to the developing fetus from exposure to phenylalanine derived from aspartame at the current ADI (with the exception of women suffering from PKU).”

    These experts are wrong !!

    If I review the math problem of 2×2 = 4 and as an expert conclude 2×2 = 5 …..I have come to an erroneous conclusion !!

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