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What You Need to Know About Aspartame, the Sugar Substitute

Millions of people choose artificial sweeteners each year to replace sugar in their coffee, tea and other dishes. But what do we know about aspartame, the compound used in some of our favorite brand names?

“Aspartame does contain calories, but it’s about 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so very little is necessary to sweeten foods,” said Alexis Sweeney, MD, a physician specializing in family medicine at Abington -Jefferson Health. “It can be found in many diet sodas, candies, chewing gums and as an alternative tabletop sweetener.”

Recent research and speculation have created a national conversation about the health effects of long- and short-term use of aspartame—here’s what you need to know to separate fact from theory.

Understanding Artificial Sweeteners

Aspartame is made up of two amino acids—aspartic acid and the methyl ester of phenylalanine—which are the foundation of proteins and can be found naturally in milk, meats and select vegetables. The sweetener is considered artificial because the two acids must be fused together in a chemical reaction.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started regulating artificial sweeteners in 1958 with the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, requiring that they are approved before release. In addition to aspartame, there are compounds such as saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, neotame and advantame under this umbrella.

Most of these artificial sweeteners were developed between the 1970s and 1990s, and all have been approved by the FDA for use in the United States. Today, they make up the colorful array of packets you see in coffee stations.

Health Concerns: Fact and Fiction

Since the introduction of aspartame, there have been questions about the potential long- and short-term impacts of the compound, leading to a slew of laboratory research.

“The reported individual sensitivities include allergic reactions, headaches, dizziness, mood changes, gastrointestinal symptoms, loss of menstrual period and skin changes,” said Dr. Sweeney. However, much of the research into the cause of the symptoms has been flawed, creating confusion for customers.

“These reports were later found to be inconsistent by the FDA, which considers aspartame safe if consumed in moderation,” said Dr. Sweeney.

Aspartame was also linked to cancer in research on rodents conducted in 2005, but these findings were challenged by two large-scale studies conducted shortly afterwards. The FDA formally discredited the claim in 2013, and the American Cancer Society released a statement that states there is no clear evidence that aspartame causes cancer.

The only confirmed side effect of aspartame is the exacerbation of a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, which prevents vital chemicals from reaching the brain.

“In phenylketonuria, individuals have difficulty eliminating a substance called phenylalanine, and so it builds up in the body,” said Dr. Sweeney. This stops the passage of necessary chemicals like amino acids.  

“When consumed, aspartame breaks down to become phenylalanine. This can worsen symptoms,” said Dr. Sweeney. Babies are often screened for phenylketonuria at birth, and those with the disorder are usually placed on a restrictive diet.

Safe Consumption: Always in Moderation

Despite its approval as a safe food additive, aspartame should be consumed in moderation. The FDA released a statement on the acceptable daily intake of aspartame: 50 milligrams for every kilogram of body weight.

“That means, for an average 150-pound individual, an acceptable amount of aspartame is approximately 3,400 milligrams per day,” said Dr. Sweeney, “which is equal to more than 17 cans of diet soda or 97 packets of tabletop sweetener. This is a poor health decision.” Instead, water should always be your preferred hydration method.

For those seeking to avoid aspartame while research is still being conducted, Dr. Sweeney has one additional tip.

“Aspartame is only found in processed foods, so choosing fresh fruits and vegetables and preparing your own meals at home can help you manage your intake and overall diet,” she said.  

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