Alternative sweeteners have become more popular as the disastrous health effects of added sugar in the diet attract more attention; aspartame is among the most controversial of low-calorie, alternative sweeteners.
Some experts consider aspartame safe, while others believe using it can cause various issues ranging from headaches and neurological disorders to weight gain or even cancer.
Aspartame is used in sweet, low-calorie foods and beverages like soda and other soft drinks, as well as being available in powder form to add to your own foods at home.
With more than two thirds of Americans classified as overweight or obese, foods that can help with cutting back on calories and limiting added sugar in the diet are big business, and finding your way through the maze of products can be daunting.
We’ll take a look here at what aspartame is and how it affects health.
The Nature of Aspartame
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that’s been around since the 1980s. It was first marketed as “NutraSweet,” and gained popularity because it affects the taste buds virtually the same way as sugar, with minimal aftertaste or bitterness.
Besides being useful as a table sweetener, it can be found in everything from desserts like cookies and cakes to chewing gum and weight loss products.
A “small” protein, aspartame is a dipeptide; its chemical structure consists of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) with a hydrocarbon attached to impart sweetness.
Instead of entering the bloodstream immediately like sugar does, aspartame is broken down in the stomach into separate components by digestive enzymes: methanol is an alcohol sugar, and the other two parts are the amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid.
These three components are then absorbed into the blood stream separately.
Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, which means our bodies cannot produce it and we must obtain it from food. It is found naturally in proteins, with the most abundant sources being foods like eggs, meat, fish, dairy products, nuts and legumes. (1)
There is nothing harmful about phenylalanine and the amounts you would get from adding aspartame to your diet are small compared to what’s present in these protein sources.
Healthy people don’t need to be concerned about phenylalanine; only those with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU) must avoid foods high in the substance, especially during the growth and development of youth. (2)
Aspartic acid is also a naturally-occurring amino acid, one that is produced by the body and found in a range of foods including meat, fish, eggs and products rich in soy protein.
No harmful effects have ever been noted from consuming aspartic acid, and aspartame contains very little of this protein in comparison to the foods listed above.
Methanol is a toxic substance that is related to ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks.
The most likely source of appreciable amounts of methanol is home-brewed alcohol that has been improperly produced. It is present in small quantities is various vegetables, fruits, and coffee. (3)
The methanol produced during the digestion process of aspartame is miniscule, so it’s not considered a health risk from that perspective. (4)
Aspartame’s Bad Reputation: Is It True?
The European Ramazzini Foundation conducted a series of animal studies exposing rats to aspartame from before birth, and data indicated there could be a connection to the development of lung and liver cancer. (7, 8)
The trials were criticized by scientists for various reasons, and results were considered by some to be irrelevant to human ingestion of aspartame. (9)
An observational study, which cannot provide conclusive evidence, suggested there could be a link between some types of cancer and aspartame use, but the association was present only for males. (10)
Proposed links between aspartame and brain cancer or blood cancer were not noted in other observational studies. (11)
A similar lack of evidence is casts doubt on the claim that using aspartame as a sugar substitute to reduce calories in the diet causes weight gain. (14)
On the other hand, there is no evidence that aspartame actually helps people lose weight; however, it appears that aspartame could be useful in preventing long-term weight gain. (15)
A review of studies suggested that aspartame could have undesirable effects on brain function. (16)
These conclusions were criticized for containing information that wasn’t accurate, as well as using references of questionable origin and being riddled with speculation. (17)
The single study showing potential problems with using aspartame was done with depression patients; symptoms grew more severe when subjects took pills containing aspartame. (23)
Limited studies in regard to the effect of aspartame on seizure activity don’t provide clear-cut results.
Studies conducted to determine potential links between aspartame use and headaches have been inconclusive; most found no association between the two variables. (26)
One trial noted a greater frequency of headaches reported, but the group of individuals was extremely varied, and no data on intensity or duration was gathered; the results are considered unreliable. (27)
Aspartame has been studied extensively for safety and side effects, and some of the studies were conducted with individuals who believed they were sensitive to the sweetener. (28)
Despite the focus on unearthing adverse health effects resulting from ingesting aspartame, there’s still no real evidence it’s harmful.
Aspartame sensitivity may well exist in certain people, and if you notice adverse reactions after using it, finding a different alternative sweetener is a simple matter.
Summary: Aspartame is an artificial sweetener designed to provide the same taste as sugar, and may be helpful in preventing weight gain over the long term; studies have yet to pinpoint any dangers for healthy people who want to include aspartame in their diets.