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Aspartame - The Facts, Safety and Benefits

Updated: 06/28/2017

What Is Aspartame?

      Discovered in 1965, aspartame is an amino acid based sugar substitute that has become one of the most widely used and most controversial artificial sweeteners on the market [1a]. It's many times sweeter than real sugar yet it doesn't contain any sugar or measurable calories. You'll find aspartame used in many premixed sugar free drinks or powdered mixes as well as thousands of food items. Aspartame is called NutraSweet in the food and beverage industries but it's also available to consumers and now marketed under the Equal Classic brand name as well as other lesser-known or generic brand names. While aspartame itself is not a sugar, flowing and bulking agents are added to the single-serve packets, spoonable canisters and bags. These flowing and bulking agents are usually some type of glucose like dextrose or maltodextrin (usually derived from either GMO or non-GMO corn), but the quantity per serving is dietetically insignificant unless over 5 to 6 servings are consumed all at once. In addition to the aspartame, acesulfame-K (another sweetener) is now usually added to aspartame-based sweeteners to mask the aftertaste of pure aspartame and add additional sweetness.

Is Aspartame Safe?

      The most widely asked question regarding aspartame continues to be "is aspartame safe?" From the available research the answer is yes, it is safe. Over 200 independent studies have shown the safety of aspartame and the regulatory/health agencies in more than 100 countries have agreed after reviewing the research. Besides the USFDA, some of the agencies which have deemed aspartame to be safe include the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, and the Scientific Committee on Food of the European Union [1b] [2] [3]. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is best framed by the American Cancer Society's aspartame information page:

"To put the ADI for aspartame in perspective, this would be 3,750 milligrams per day for a typical adult weighing 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds), far more than most adults take in daily. A 12 ounce can of diet soda usually contains about 192 milligrams of aspartame and a packet of the tabletop sweetener contains about 35mg. An adult weighing 165 pounds would have to drink more than 19 cans of diet soda a day or consume more than 107 packets to go over the recommended level" [3].

      So aspartame seems safe, but is it safe for everyone? Not entirely. Anyone that has classic Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare metabolic genetic disorder usually discovered at birth or within a few months thereof, should not use aspartame since it contains an essential amino acid and protein building-block called phenylalanine (found in all proteins). Those that have PKU cannot effectively metabolize proteins, and if proteins are consumed in enough quantity the result is phenylalanine build up in the body, which causes health problems ranging from brain damage and seizures to psychiatric problems [4] [5]. For those without PKU the phenylalanine is not an issue at all. Also, if you're pregnant or breastfeeding aspartame-based sweeteners are deemed safe to use in moderation by the American Pregnancy Association - this is due to basic nutritional concerns as aspartame is a nonnutritive sweetener [6].
       Regarding the controversy over aspartame, there remains a large collection of anecdotal reports of sensitivity to aspartame, with entire websites devoted to cataloguing these sensitivities [7]. There have been a number of independent, double blind research studies to try and confirm aspartame sensitivity, but no correlations have been found thus far [8]. However, if you find yourself having a sensitivity or suspected allergy to aspartame, or simply don't care much for the taste, there are plenty of other sweeteners available worth a try.

What Are The Benefits of Aspartame?

      There are some notable benefits to using aspartame. For example, aspartame by itself does not increase blood sugar levels and is considered a calorie free sweetening agent. This is a boon for a diabetics or anyone looking to reduce sugar in their diet. Like other USFDA approved sweeteners, aspartame is recommended by the American Diabetes Association for those with type I or II diabetes, as it increases their food choices and can lead to healthier eating habits[9]. Lastly, since aspartame is sugar free it doesn't promote tooth decay like regular table sugar does.

Article References

1a. "History and Controversy of Aspartame". 2017. Aspartame Information Center of the Calorie Control Council

1b. "Aspartame FAQ". 2017. Aspartame Information Center of the Calorie Control Council

2. "Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer". National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. 2009.

3. "Aspartame". American Cancer Society. 2014.

4. "Phenylketonuria ". NIH: US National Library of Medicine. 2017.

5. "Phenylketonuria ". NIH: MedlinePlus. 2015.

6. "Artificial Sweeteners and Pregnancy". 2015.

7. "Aspartame Sensitivity". Google Search Results. 2017.

8. "Aspartame Sensitivity? A Double Blind Randomised Crossover Study". Sathyapalan, T., et al. PLOS One. 2015
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9. "Low-Calorie Sweeteners: What's News, What's New". American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Spectrum (Journal).

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