Aspartame - Is it THAT bad?

By: Jan 11, 2012

Learn the truth about this popular zero calorie sweetener.

You’ve heard the rumors, the myths, and maybe the facts. So what is the truth about aspartame? Maybe you received the emails about it or had a friend claim to get a headache after drinking diet soda. The truth about Aspartame, unfortunately, is not very straightforward.

What is it?
Aspartame, also known as L-alpha-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine methyl ester, is a synthetic sweetener. It is made by bringing together two amino acids, L-phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. It is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose, which is your typical refined, white sugar. When you consume aspartame, it breaks down into the two amino acids and a small molecule called methanol. All three are naturally occurring molecules found in many foods.

Government Approvals
So far it doesn’t sound too scary, right? There have been years and years of controversy surrounding aspartame and whether it is safe to eat or not must come down to an individual decision. It was originally approved as a food additive in the United States in 1974 and Health Canada allowed it in 1981. In addition to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. and Health Canada, several other countries have investigated and found aspartame to be acceptable and safe to use in food.

Some countries, however, have considered banning the substance or have required food products to be labeled to indicate the presence of aspartame. These include the United Kingdom and Indonesia. The European Food Safety Authority is currently conducting a complete re-evaluation of aspartame and will release the findings some time in 2012.

What has caused all the panic over aspartame if so many government organizations say aspartame is a-ok? Many people have claimed to experience adverse side effects from consuming it and, of course, there was an Internet hoax citing the horrors of aspartame.

In the 1990s, a chain email began circulating listing the evils of NutraSweet, which is one brand name for aspartame. Many people turned away from consuming aspartame after reading it. Since then, people have used the Internet to make claims about effects of aspartame that they have experienced: seizures, headaches, changes in mood, nausea, anxiety, depression, and more. By far, the most common complaint is a headache.

What Does Science Say?
Thanks to all of the controversy surrounding this sweetener, aspartame has been tested more than most other food substances. Nearly all of these have concluded that aspartame is safe to consume at reasonable levels. What is reasonable then? According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, it is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. A typical can of diet soda contains about 180 milligrams of aspartame.

There have been enough results in some studies to cast a shadow of doubt on the safety of consuming aspartame. Certainly, people with phenylketonuria, the inability to metabolize phenylalanine, can suffer greatly from eating it. Another concern for otherwise healthy individuals is that aspartame may cause cancer. No studies have shown that this is the case in humans.

Research has confirmed that some people may experience headaches, however. An allergic reaction to aspartame can cause a headache. A study by St. Cloud University found that consuming aspartame may actually lead to weight gain. How frustrating for those of us trying to cut back on sugary calories! The idea is that because it does not truly satisfy your sweet tooth, you will eat real sugar later.

If you’re not up for taking your chances with aspartame, but you want to replace sugar with a zero calorie sweetener, you do have some options. Sugar alcohols are natural compounds that have some calories and are equal in sweetness to sugars. These include xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol. Stevia, brand name Truvia, is a natural compound from the Stevia plant. It has been used for thousands of years and is 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Aspartame may cause concern in some people, but for those who are desperate to lose weight, its use is understandable. If you are one of those, you may want to do more research or try an alternative.