Food Science

What Is Aspartame?

For several years, we have been trying to understand what substances are good for us and what substances cause harm. In this process, several researchers have found out more about refined table sugar and its many forms and how it affects one’s health. From fluctuation in blood sugar to obesity and more, sugar was considered to be the root cause of many health issues. Several health experts offered their research and thoughts on the adverse effects it offered, and in 1965, the non-caloric sweetener aspartame was discovered.

What Is Aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that has been used in the United States since the 1980s. It is a novel sweetener that was first authorized to enter the U.S. market in 1974 but was suspended within a few months on the grounds that it could be toxic. After several examinations, aspartame was granted solid food marketing authorization in 1981 and 1983 for soft drinks. It was not until 1996 that aspartame was authorized for use as a general sweetener after several national and international organizations assessed its safety.

Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners that is found in the present market. It is a combination of two amino acids – the building blocks of protein: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. As it is 200 times sweeter than refined sugar, it is used in a wide variety of packaged foods, and almost every person may have consumed it at least once. 

The U.S. FDA and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has made a recommendation for the minimum daily intake of aspartame that is considered safe for human health. The minimum daily intake set by the respective organizations is:

  • 50 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of human body weight set by the FDA
  • 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of human body weight set by the EFSA

A can of diet soda of any brand contains not more than 185 milligrams of aspartame. A person weighing 68 kilograms or 150 pounds will need to consume at least 15 cans of diet soda to exceed EFSA guidelines and 18 cans to exceed the FDA recommendation. 

As per these regulatory agencies, aspartame is safe for use, and there are no side effects that have been proven until now. They also state that it is not be consumed by individuals suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU).

Foods with Aspartame

Aspartame is found in several products, and some of the variety includes the following:

  • Chewing gum
  • Cold breakfast cereals
  • Dairy products
  • Diet soft drinks
  • Dried pudding
  • Dried dessert mixes
  • Frozen desserts
  • Powdered drinks

Aspartame loses its sweetness when it is heated and is hence not used in baking. The sweetener is considered non-caloric, but it does contain a small number of calories. As it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, only a little amount is used, and the calorie count is proportionally low.

Aspartame and the Digestive System

When consumed, aspartame breaks down in the digestive tract, and none of it enters the blood intact. The digestive enzymes in the stomach break it into amino acids, namely aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and an alcohol molecule called methanol. The two amino acids are naturally occurring and the most common in the human diet.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is present in dietary protein and found in protein-rich foods, like nuts, legumes, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Consuming foods with phenylalanine does not pose any threat to healthy people. As aspartame is only a minor source of phenylalanine when compared to other food products, it is not a cause of any concern.

Aspartic acid can be produced by the human body and is one of the most common amino acids in the human diet. It is found in foods such as eggs, fish, meat, and soy protein. There are no adverse health effects seen with the consumption of aspartic acid, and as aspartame is only a minor source when compared to other food products, it is safe for consumption. 

Methanol, on the other hand, is a toxic substance. It is related to a substance called ethanol that is found in alcoholic beverages. It is found in coffee, vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, and alcoholic beverages. Methanol is a health concern only when it is consumed in high content, especially in improperly brewed alcohol. But as only a small quantity of methanol is consumed when aspartame is ingested, it is not considered a health concern.

After aspartame is ingested, it breaks down in the digestive tract, and hardly any gets in the blood. The human body metabolizes methanol and aspartic acid rapidly without increasing the concentration in the bloodstream. The body metabolizes aspartame even if the acceptable daily intake is given in a single dose. The level of phenylalanine in the blood may increase, but it does not increase the blood levels more than what a normal meal does, except in those individuals who are affected with phenylketonuria disease. 

Is Aspartame Approved by a Regulatory Agency?

There are so many ingredients that are added in a product that it sometimes becomes difficult to keep track of them all. As aspartame is a sweetener and 200 times sweeter than sugar, it is blindly considered to be harmful to health by many.

Many food substances, like aspartame, are a part of a controversy. To ensure their safety, there are several health-related organizations and regulatory agencies that study these substances and approve their use. Aspartame has been approved for use by the following organizations:

  • The United States Food and Drug Administration
  • The World Health Organization
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
  • The American Dietetic Association
  • The American Heart Association

Aspartame was first approved by the FDA in 1981. It was approved for use in a wide variety of daily foods and beverages. It was approved for use in carbonated drinks in 1983, as well as in carbonated beverage syrup bases. FDA approved its general-purpose usage in 1996, and now aspartame is used widely in the food industry. 

It is also approved as a safe substance by Japan’s Ministry of Health, WHO/FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority, as well as by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Aspartame as a Substitute to Refined Sugar

Aspartame, the most common artificial sweetener that is widely used by the food industry, has been under fire for the wrong reasons in the hands of several natural food organizations. Government agencies and large health organizations continue to stand by its side, confirming its safety while it continues to be questioned. 

When compared to refined sugar, aspartame is sweeter, for which it is used by the food industry in beverages and foods. The major difference between the two is that aspartame contains fewer calories, and hence, it is more suited for those watching their weight. While a teaspoon of sugar contains carbohydrates and 16 calories, aspartame contains only two calories. But since it is 200 times sweeter, you can use much less to attain the sweetness of a teaspoon of sugar. 

There are several reasons to avoid sugar:

  • It increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
  • It affects your immune function,
  • It causes glucose levels to fluctuate.
  • It accelerates aging.
  • It causes tooth decay and gum disease.
  • It increases stress.
  • It can lead to chromium deficiency.

As for aspartame, there are claims that it has several side effects, such as dizziness, headaches, mood changes, and digestive problems. It has been attributed to serious health problems like Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, congenital disabilities, lupus, seizures, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. But these claims are not supported by experts who have evaluated that aspartame is safe for use and is better than sugar when consumed in limited quantities, in accordance with the acceptable daily intake.

Controversy Surrounding Aspartame

Phenylketonuria and aspartame

Phenylketonuria is a genetic disease that causes phenylalanine, a type of amino acid, to build up in the body. Phenylalanine, which is one of the ingredients of aspartame, is found in protein sources like dairy products, eggs, fish, and meat. Excessive consumption of food substances that are high in phenylalanine, such as aspartame, is considered a risk only for those individuals who suffer from PKU. If it is left untreated, it can cause behavioral problems, seizures, intellectual disability, and mental disorders.

Tardive dyskinesia and aspartame

Tardive dyskinesia (TD) is a condition caused by neuroleptic drugs. It is a side effect of schizophrenia medications and causes involuntary or uncontrolled movements, such as grimacing, twitching, and thrusting. TD is often caused by drugs prescribed for psychiatric neurological disorders. It is believed that phenylalanine that is in aspartame can increase uncontrolled muscle movements caused by TD. 

Aspartame and Other Health Conditions

Several activists who are against the use of aspartame claim that it causes a variety of health problems that include:

  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Cancer
  • Lupus
  • Weight gain
  • Congenital disabilities
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis

Several experts are conducting research to validate or invalidate these claims. Until now, all claims are said to be inconsistent. There were several studies conducted to understand the health concerns of aspartame, and the following conclusions were made:

  • Patients who already suffer from depression reported more symptoms when they consumed aspartame.
  • Aspartame increased brain activity linked to seizures in children who did not suffer from seizures.
  • There was a weak link found between aspartame and frequency of headaches, but there was no difference in the duration or severity of these headaches. 
  • It does not affect mental or behavioral functions.

Use of aspartame is a highly controversial topic and is linked to several health conditions, but nothing has been proven until now by science. 

Aspartame, Diabetes, and Weight Loss

The first step to controlling diabetes, as well as weight loss, is to cut back the empty calorie sugar from the diet. Sugar is used in a lot of food products, from beverages to ice creams and other desserts, and people with diabetes or those who want to shed some weight successfully do it by reducing the consumption of food with sugar in it.

Switching to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame is proven to be beneficial in keeping diabetes in control, as well as to reduce weight. There is a debate over how aspartame helps reduce weight. Some experts claim that it is subject to the diet of the person who wants to lose weight. Sugar is a carbohydrate that turns into fat in the body. It affects insulin resistance, and in turn, the blood sugar. It causes hunger spikes and cravings, which often leads to increased intake of sugary or carbohydrate-filled foods. A person who has already cut back on sugar and has been following a sugar-free diet for a long time will not find aspartame a useful substitute, as there is no sugar to be substituted.

There is still research going on about how aspartame affects diabetes, weight loss, and several other health conditions. The results until now have been inconclusive, in fact, far from conclusive. It is important to note that losing weight is not made possible by substituting full-calorie sweeteners with low-calorie sweeteners. It must also be accompanied by a healthy diet and a good exercise regime. Lifestyle changes that include good eating habits, exercise, a good amount of sleep, and a positive attitude towards life are equally important.

Does Aspartame Cause Cancer?

There are several claims that aspartame causes cancer. This rumor or concern has been around for several years and has become a reason to feel anxious about its consumption. The concern about cancer started from the study published by a group of Italian researchers. The results of studies in rats proposed that aspartame may intensify the risk of some blood-related cancers, leukemia, and lymphomas. These results were based on rat studies, and the results of epidemiologic studies have been inconsistent.

There were a few notable animal studies conducted to link aspartame with cancer, but these studies were criticized for using poor methods. They were considered to be irrelevant to humans. Observational studies found links between aspartame and cancer in men, as well as aspartame and blood cancer, but these links have not yet been proven by science.

Scientific reviews have hence claimed that there is no relation between aspartame and cancer in human beings. In addition, the American Cancer Association has not determined aspartame as a carcinogen, but it seeks help from respected organizations for the purpose. Studies done by organizations such as the United States Food and Drug Association and the European Food Safety Authority agree that there is no link between aspartame and cancer. 

What Is Aspartame Sensitivity?

Despite several international institutions, regulatory agencies, and organizations claiming that aspartame is safe for use, several new cases of adverse effects continue to surface. Until now, there have been very limited studies that have been conducted to find a link between aspartame and health concerns that are claimed by anti-aspartame activists. The studies conducted on these possible connections have been marked by methodological difficulties and small sample sizes. In addition to several studies that resulted in no connection, a randomized controlled trial by the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency did not find any difference in physical, psychological, or biochemical symptoms. The study was conducted on self-reported ‘aspartame-sensitive’ participants who consumed aspartame. 

Why is aspartame sensitivity not a concern? As mentioned earlier, aspartame breaks down in the intestinal tract into two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenylalanine – and methanol. They are naturally present in several other foods and beverages in larger quantities and is likely regularly consumed by human beings. This fact makes it difficult to hypothesize the biological mechanism for aspartame-specific symptoms. In simple, it is difficult to hypothesize whether a person is sensitive to aspartame or not.

Natural Alternatives to Aspartame

Aspartame continues to be in a controversy over its health effects. But before you go on and change back to sugar that can cause several health problems, you must look into other substitutes for aspartame that can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

  • Stevia: It is derived from the leaves of the plant species named Stevia Rebaudiana, which is native to Brazil and Paraguay. It is 200 to 300 times sweeter than evaporated cane juice and is considered one of the best alternatives to sugar. Since it has a low glycemic index rating, its consumption does not change the blood sugar. The only minus is that it may have a bitter aftertaste.
  • Agave nectar: It is the juice from the agave plant, and like stevia, it has a low glycemic rating, as almost all the sugar in it is fructose. It has very little glucose when compared to refined sugar and hence does not spike the blood sugar. It is 42 percent sweeter than evaporated cane juice and is the succulent that is used to make tequila.
  • Honey: Derived naturally from bees, it is one of the oldest sweeteners used by man and a great substitute for sugar. Honey that is raw and unprocessed is extremely healthy, as it is loaded with vitamins and minerals. It is considered as a superfood that can treat several ailments.
  • Date sugar: Not many people may consider using date sugar in their day-to-day lives. Made from one of nature’s sweetest fruits, it is simply dehydrated ground dates. It consists of all the nutritional value of dates, like iron and vitamin A, and it is also high in fiber. 
  • Maple syrup: It is made from the xylem sap of red maple sugar maple or black maple tree. It can be made from other species of the maple tree. It is considered a better substitute for sugar, as it has a lower glycemic index when compared to cane sugar.
  • Blackstrap molasses: It is a viscous sugar substitute that is derived from refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. It varies by the amount of sugar it contains, the age of the plant used, and the method of extraction. It is primarily used as a sweetener and for flavoring foods. 

The health concerns of all-natural sweeteners are also questionable due to the amount of fructose they contain. It is advised to consult your healthcare provider before switching to any sweetener.

Frequently Asked Questions 

With several health concerns revolving around aspartame, some may feel anxious when it comes to consuming it directly in coffee or tea or indirectly in diet sodas. Several authorities have approved the use of aspartame in the food industry, as they have not seen any substantial proof regarding its adverse effects on health. Yet there might be some unanswered questions that some may have that need to be addressed to ensure its safety. These questions include –

Can I take aspartame if I am pregnant?

Every pregnant and breastfeeding woman worries about the adverse health effect of the food she consumes on her child. Aspartame is safe for use by pregnant and lactating women. Women who want to substitute aspartame over refined sugar may feel a little anxious due to the several health claims that have surfaced. But as aspartame is rapidly metabolized by the body, the small amount of methanol does not have any effect on the unborn child. All women must be mindful of what they are eating while they are pregnant and must consume nutritious food while also ensuring that they do not exceed their needs. By being mindful of what they eat, they can keep their body in control.

Can aspartame be given to children?

As a parent, the first and foremost duty is to ensure that our child is safe. Having heard of the health concerns such as cancer, many parents may feel anxious to offer food products containing aspartame to children. As per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, nutritious and low-calorie sweeteners as a part of the diet does not have any adverse effects on children, Aspartame is safe for use in children, provided it is well within the acceptable levels. Due to limited studies, there are no official recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the intake of aspartame by children.

Can I take aspartame if I have diabetes?

Aspartame is low in calories and carbohydrates when compared to refined table sugar. Products containing aspartame can be consumed by people with diabetes, as well as by people who must monitor their carbohydrate intake. The artificial sweetener does not affect blood glucose control or raise blood sugar levels. It has the potential to reduce the overall calorie and carbohydrate intake if it substitutes sugar. It was also seen that the use of low-calorie sweeteners by people with diabetes may contribute to better glycemic control. It is safe for use by people with diabetes, but it is advised that you consult with your healthcare provider before changing your diet. 

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