You cannot beat a canned diet drink for marketability.

An ultrathin body, neverending popularity and material success will supposedly be all yours if you drink cans of diet fizz.

It doesn't work like that, of course. In reality, the sweet taste stimulates tastebuds and increases appetite in many users, resulting in overall weight gain - possibly one reason for the rising number of obese children and adults in this country.

On the increase, too, are those who complain of major side-effects of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, owned by Monsanto (tradenames:

Nutrasweet, Canderel).

Far from being allowed to promote health and happiness, perhaps these products should carry a health warning.

Companies cleverly exploit our concerns about obesity and tooth decay by marketing products labelled "no added sugar" or "light".

But if you think they are doing you a favour, think again.

According to the Food Commission, it costs about two pence to sweeten a litre of soft drink with aspartame (E951). As artificial sweeteners like aspartame are three times cheaper than ordinary sugar, you can find them in an increasing number of "regular" versions - just read the labels.

Aspartame is developed in a laboratory and made up of three ingredients: The amino acid phenylalanine blocks the production of the brain chemical serotonin. High levels may lead to emotional disorders.

Aspartic acid stands accused by leading scientists of overstimulating brain cells, causing holes in the brains of mice.

The final member in the toxic triumvirate is methanol, an alcohol made from wood.

The body breaks it down into the highly poisonous formaldehyde (embalming fluid).

There is plenty of evidence to suggest aspartame is harmful but all of it has been vigorously denied, not only by the giants that make or sell it but by bona fide government food agencies as well.

In 1996, Professor R Walon of Ohio's University College of Medicine analysed 164 medical studies dealing with the safety of aspartame in humans. He found that every study funded by the aspartame industry claimed there were no health problems associated with its use.

Of those studies that had no connections to industry, almost all identified health problems with the sweetener.

These included headaches, memory loss, dizziness, rashes, depression, hyperactivity and rages.

Some have linked it to epilepsy, Parkinson's Disease, MS and brain tumours.

The risks may be greater for those whose blood brain barriers are not fully developed or protected, such as children, the elderly or people with chronic health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure.

Too bad that aspartame has bought its way into brightly-coloured cans, yoghurts, desserts, chewing gum, baked beans, crisps and top-selling fruit drinks. And, shock horror, it is also found in toothpaste, cheap vitamins and medicines, particularly those targeted at children.

Yet we are unlikely to see restriction in the use of artificial sweeteners. Far from it:

new, even more potent sweetener called Neotame has been developed by Monsanto and is awaiting approval for general usage.

It is up to you whether you give it houseroom.