Aspartame is a type of artificial sweetener made from aspartic acid, found commonly in a number of low-calorie foods. Initially branded as NutraSweet, the patent has since expired enabling it to find its way into many more products.
If you’ve heard of aspartame though, then there’s a good chance that it wasn’t in a positive light. This substance has come under fire due to a number of controversies and is thought by many to pose significant health risks. It has been called ‘By Far the Most Dangerous Substance on the Market’ and generally been the focus of a lot of bad press.
Despite this, aspartame is a popular inclusion in a number of food brands, owing to its sweetness that rates at 200 times stronger than sucrose. Another benefit of the substance is its relatively low calorie count (4 calories per gram – the same as sugar) which makes it a very interesting substitute for sugar in diet foods.
The Truth Behind Aspartame
It’s very easy for us to believe scare stories about sweeteners owing to the number of ingredients that have turned out to be bad for us and even dangerous in the past. Thus, when we’re told that aspartame is bad, we tend to just accept it.
Actually though, the substance was initially approved for use in food by the FDA in 1981 and has since been re-evaluated more recently in 2013 (1). Surprisingly, it was found to still be considered safe for human consumption at the current levels. This corroborates a number of other studies and reviews (2).
The only exception it seems is for people who suffer from the condition phenylketonuria (PKU) due to the inclusion of phenylalanine.
So what happened?
The first controversies began in a 1996 report that identified a possible link between aspartame and brain tumors (3). This was followed by a couple of subsequent studies in 2006 and 2007 that linked it to an increase in the chances of developing cancer.
None of these studies however were particularly scientific and subsequent research discredited them. The first study only looked at rats and had several issues with its method. A following study attempted to replicate the results and did not.
Likewise, the correlation between aspartame and cancer was just that – a correlation which could have been caused by many things. It also had a relatively small sample size. In 2006 a more comprehensive study looked at nearly half a million people to try and identify a connection and found there was no causal link. The FDA’s comprehensive review looked at all this evidence and more in 2013 and concluded that the substance was safe for human consumption – including among women and children.
However, the damage was already done and the press were much keener to publish the potential dangers of aspartame than they were to redact those findings. Thus rumors about the substance’s potential dangers continued and some hoaxsters purposefully continued to perpetuate these myths.
The Bottom Line
With all that in mind then, should you eat aspartame?
It would seem at this point that there is no reason not to. Might it at some point transpire that it does pose risks? Possibly – but the same could be said for almost any other ingredient and for now there’s no reason to suspect this one is particularly dangerous.
On the other hand, there’s certainly no cause to ‘seek out’ aspartame. Sweeteners might give you a break from sugar but they’re not perfect – among other things they can spike the blood sugar leading to an insulin response followed by hunger pangs.
Don’t worry about aspartame but it’s certainly not a superfood!