This artificial sweetener, sold in pill form or added to processed foods, has long divided opinion as to whether consumption is safe and if it's an effective way to cut back on sugar. Here we examine what we actually know about aspartame and whether it's a worthy substitute for the sweet stuff...
Aspartame was accidentally discovered in 1965 by a chemist working on a treatment for gastric ulcers. Today it is a widely used, artificial low-calorie sweetener, approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Its rise to prominence has not been without controversy. Health professionals have linked it with changes in mood and to alterations in the gut microbiome, potentially leading to glucose intolerance.
Other health professionals go further, describing it as toxic, linking it to birth defects, cancers and brain tumors. However, international regulatory agencies continue to approve its general use in a range of foods, including carbonated soft drinks, yogurt and chewing gum.
Where you'll find it
Diet fizzy drinks are the largest dietary source of aspartame in the USA. Here in the UK, if the product claims to be ‘sugar free’, there’s a good chance it contains aspartame. It does not heat well so it cannot be used as a replacement in baking or cooking. It's commonly used to sweeten hot beverages such as tea and coffee.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) suggests an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40 milligrams of aspartame per kilogram of body weight per day. The ADI applies to all age groups, including children. The only exception is for people suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic condition in which the body is unable to break down a particular amino acid. In the case of aspartame, an adult would have to consume 14 cans of sugar free drinks every day before reaching the ADI.
Aspartame is made up of three chemicals: aspartic acid (40%), phenylalanine (50%) and methanol (10%). Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids. Methanol is also commonly encountered in the diet. It is the presence of methanol that concerns people as when metabolised by the body it produces small amounts of formaldehyde, which is toxic in large amounts. Aspartame is commonly sold in food products or under the brand names Equal or Nutrasweet and appears on ingredient lists either as ‘aspartame’ or 'E951'.
There are plenty of conflicting health claims surrounding aspartame. The FSA endorses aspartame's safety (unless you suffer from PKU) with the majority of wider evidence being inconclusive. What we do know is that although the moderate use of non-nutritive sweeteners may be useful as a short term dietary aid, only minimal amounts of sugar or sweeteners should be consumed in the long term.
Health debates often focus on aspartame's ability to control appetite. It is uncertain whether aspartame provides the same satisfaction you get from table sugar as the brain is not content simply with the sweet taste without the calories to accompany it. Nutrient and energy content plays a prominent role in satiation and satiety and it is here that aspartame requires further investigation.
Is it better for you than sugar?
As with all artificial sweeteners, the lines are blurred. What we do know is that when you eat something sweet that contains energy (calories) your brain releases dopamine and you experience a feeling of pleasure. This in turn activates the appetite regulating hormone leptin, which informs the brain that you’re full. In contrast, when you consume something sweet without the calories your brain’s pleasure pathway is still activated by the sweet taste but there is nothing to deactivate it, since your body is still waiting for the calories. As a result you may end up overeating to satisfy this need, which over time increases the risk of obesity and insulin resistance.
Sugar-free drinks are popular because they are seen as a way of getting a sweet fix without consuming sugar. However, some studies have suggested that artificially sweetened drinks may be associated with various health concerns, including diabetes. A similar study reported a link between artificially sweetened drinks and dementia and stroke. However, both of these studies failed to provide a science-backed 'cause and effect' for their conclusions. This is because the research was observational and based on the collation of food and drink questionnaires. So, for the time being, it would appear that the jury is still out on the effects of these products, and we will need to await the results of further studies before any clear conclusions can be drawn.
In the meantime, plain water or unsweetened tea and coffee are undoubtedly a cheaper and healthier option.
In 2013, National Experts of the European Food Safety Authority wrote a report regarding the safety of aspartame. The current weight of the evidence from that report is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener, unless you suffer from PKU.
This article was last reviewed on 24th September 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
Jo Lewin works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at www.nutrijo.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
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