Aspartame has received much negative press over the last few years. As a result, consumers have become increasingly concerned about the safety of this artificial sweetener. E-mail chain-letters containing misinformation about Aspartame are common. Worried mothers are constantly checking food labels and forbidding their children to eat or drink any artificially sweetened products while some self-diagnosed individuals complain of “Aspartame-poisoning”.

What Is Aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener. It consists of two molecules of the type that make up proteins. These molecules are known as amino acids and are very common in food.

How Is Aspartame Handled By The Body?

When aspartame is digested, it is broken down into two amino acids: Aspartic acid and Phenylalanine. A small amount of methanol is also produced. These components are also found naturally in foods, such as meat, milk, fruits and vegetables. The body uses these components in exactly the same way regardless of whether they come from aspartame or from foods. In fact, these components are provided in much higher quantities by common food products consumed daily, than by aspartame.

Why Is Aspartame So Popular?

Aspartame tastes much like table sugar (sucrose) but it is 180 to 200 times sweeter.. It does not contribute to tooth decay and as it contains much fewer kilojoules than sugar, it is often preferred by people on restricted energy (slimming) diets.

Which Products Contain Aspartame?

A very large number and variety of food products are sweetened with aspartame. Some examples include low-kilojoule sweeteners (e.g. Canderel, Nutrasweet), carbonated soft drinks, puddings, frozen desserts, yoghurt, chewing gum and certain chewable vitamins.

How Can I Tell If A Product Contains Aspartame?

Look for the word “aspartame” on the ingredient list on the product packaging.

Is Aspartame Safe?

The safety of aspartame has been recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA, by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF),, the World Health Organization, the South African Department of Health and the regulatory authorities of more than 100 other nations. Over 200 controlled medical studies have established the safety of aspartame, for the general public, diabetics, pregnant and nursing women, and children. In December 2002, aspartame’s safety was reaffirmed by the Scientific Committee on Food, an independent panel of scientific experts which advises the EU on matters of food safety.

Sufferers of phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare hereditary disease, do not have the enzymes needed for the breakdown of phenylalanine. They should therefore control their intake of phenylalanine from all sources, including aspartame. This is especially true of pregnant mothers who suffer from this condition. PKU affects about one in 10, 000 individuals – aspartame or phenylalanine “warnings” on food labels are necessary to protect these individuals.

What About Claims Of Blindness, Cancer And Other Diseases?

Claims that aspartame is associated with numerous ailments are not supported by the facts. Unfortunately urban myths about aspartame continue to be circulated on the internet despite the evidence produced by three decades of scientific and medical research. Recently several governments and expert committees have again evaluated these Internet allegations and found them to be false, reconfirming the safety of aspartame.

The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the US -based Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the American Medical Association all confirm that there is no relationship between Aspartame and cancer, tumours, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

Although methanol, a substance that can cause blindness, is produced when aspartame is being digested, the amount is miniscule – it would be necessary to drink between about 675 to 1,690 cans of an aspartame-sweetened soft drink at one sitting to reach dangerous levels. Many products provide several times more methanol than aspartame-sweetened foods. For instance, a glass of tomato juice provides about six times more methanol than a glass of an average aspartame-sweetened soft drink.

Can I Use Aspartame At Home In Cooking Or Baking?

Aspartame can be used in a wide variety of recipes with good results. Long periods of heat exposure may however cause a loss of sweetness, it is therefore recommended that low-kilojoule sweeteners with aspartame be added at the end of the cooking process. Although there may be a loss of sweetness, aspartame containing food that has been heated for a long period of time is still safe for consumption.

How Much Aspartame May I Use?

In America, the FDA uses the concept of an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for many food additives, including aspartame. This value represents an intake level that if maintained each day throughout a person’s lifetime would be considered safe. The ADI for aspartame in the USA is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day and to reach this, an adult would have to consume about 20 cans of carbonated drink or 97 servings of low-kilojoule sweetener (e.g. Canderel) daily, a level of consumption which is not likely to be reached.

The use of Aspartame has been scientifically proven as safe. Any information claiming otherwise should be regarded with suspicion.

For more in-depth information:

(A list of references is available from SANCU – (0)12 341 9746.)

F.A.C.S. Scientific Director. March 2009.