It has been reported that aspartame is used in around 6,000 consumer foods and beverages sold worldwide.
With such a widespread use, chances are that you’re consuming aspartame on a daily basis, without even knowing it.
That alone is a good enough reason to learn something more about this sugar substitute.
What is aspartame
Aspartame is a food additive of the class “Artificial Sweeteners”, that is used as a non-nutritive sugar substitute (meaning that it’s almost calorie free in the amounts used). It has different brand names the most popular being Equal Classic® and Nutrasweet®.
In chemistry “slang”, aspartame is “a methyl ester of the aspartic acid/phenylalanine dipeptide”.
It was first discovered by chance in 1965 by James M. Schlatter, a chemist who synthesized aspartame as an intermediate step in the creation of an anti-ulcer drug. He licked his fingers, that had been accidentally contaminated with aspartame, and found out the sweet taste of this compound.
It was later discovered that aspartame has an approximate sweetness of up to 200x that of sugar.
Though aspartame has the same number of calories as sugar on a weight-to-weight basis, it can be added to food or pharmaceuticals at a fraction of what would be needed with sugar to achieve the same sweetness, with far fewer calories.
How it is manufactured
Even though its components (i.e., aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol) occur naturally in food, aspartame itself does not, and must be manufactured through a fermentation, synthesis, and purification processes.
The end result is a white, crystalline, odorless powder.
Why so popular
The success of aspartame is due to its sweet taste with almost no chemical taste, as reported in other artificial sweeteners.
Aspartame, however, interacts with other food flavors differently from sugar, hence it can’t be plainly sub. In addition, it’s sensible to extensive heating, making it not suitable for baking purposes.
Controversy around aspartame
There has been (and still is) a lot of debate around aspartame, in particular around the safety of this sweetener for consumption by humans.
The FDA, the Center For Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the European Commission Scientific Committee On Food, the European Food Safety Authority, Universities, Research Labs, all have had their saying on aspartame. Let’s see what it’s all about:
- 1975, a FDA task force reviewed 11 studies on aspartame concluding that there were serious deficiencies in the manufacturer’s operations and practices.
- 1979, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) concludes, since many problems with the aspartame studies were minor and did not affect the conclusions, that the studies could be used to assess aspartame's safety.
- 1980, the FDA convened a Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) consisting of independent advisors charged with examining the purported relationship between aspartame and brain cancer. The PBOI concluded aspartame does not cause brain damage, but it recommended against approving aspartame at that time, citing unanswered questions about cancer in laboratory rats.
- 1981, notwithstanding the concerns raised by the PBOI, the FDA approves the use of aspartame for dry products.
- 1983, the FDA further approves aspartame for use in carbonated beverages, and for use in other beverages, and baked goods.
- 1987, the US General Accounting Office (GAO), investigates the FDA approval of aspartame in 1981.
The GAO finds that FDA - during the approval process - addressed safety issues raised internally and by outside scientists and concerned citizens.
However, the GAO did not evaluate the interpretation of the scientific issues raised or the adequacy of FDA'S resolution of issues on the studies used for aspartame’s approval, nor did it determine aspartame’s safety, lacking the necessary expertise.
Most interestingly, the GAO sent some questionnaires to scientists: 12 of the 69 scientists responding expressed major concerns about aspartame’s safety.
- 1993, the FDA approves aspartame for use in confections.
- 1994, the use of aspartame receives approval in all of the European Union (at that time the use of aspartame was already approved in several European countries).
- 1996, the FDA removes all restrictions from aspartame, allowing it to be used in all foods.
- 1999, the UK’s newspaper The Independent publishes an article reporting, for the first time, that aspartame was produced using genetically engineered bacteria. The manufacturer responds claiming that the use of genetic engineering to make aspartame has stayed secret until then because there is no modified DNA in the finished product.
Some experts evidenced that the safety of such a contaminating GMO compound is not known until empirical test are done to test toxicity.
- 2002, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Food reviews safety studies on aspartame and reaffirms the approval granted in 1994.
- 2006, the European Food Safety Authority reports that the established Acceptable Daily Intake is appropriate, after reviewing yet another set of studies.
- In 2007, a study conducted at the University of Maryland reviewed more than 500 reports, including toxicological, clinical and epidemiological studies dating from 1970’s preclinical work to the latest studies on the high-intensity sweetener, along with use levels and regulations data.
The researchers concluded that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption, which remain well below established acceptable daily intake levels, even among high user. No credible evidence was found that aspartame is carcinogenic, neurotoxic or has or any other adverse effects when consumed even at levels many times the established acceptable daily intake levels.
- Based on results of several long term studies, aspartame does not have carcinogenic or cancer-promoting activity.
- Results of extensive investigation in studies that mimic human exposure do not show any evidence of neurological effects, such as memory and learning problems, of aspartame consumption.
- Overall the weight of the evidence indicates that aspartame has no effect on behavior, cognitive function, neural function or seizures in any of the groups studied.
- Aspartame has not been shown to have adverse effects on reproductive activity or lactation.
- Studies conclude that aspartame is safe for use by diabetics and may aid diabetics in adhering to a sugar-free diet.
- There is no evidence to support an association between aspartame consumption and obesity. On the contrary, when used in multidisciplinary weight control programs, aspartame may actually aid in long-term weight control.
- The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and brain or hematopoietic tumor development.
Can you be addicted to aspartame?
There has been speculation that aspartame may be addictive. The theory behind is that since artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than natural sugars, they are able to reset your taste buds. The body can build a tolerance to aspartame, causing an overuse of this substance, which might be another sign of addiction.
Some surveys conducted in the last couple of years tend to show a certain level of addiction in people consuming aspartame regularly.
Although, as of today, no scientific study on this topic has been carried out.
If you take into consideration the literature available so far, it appears that - notwithstanding the rough start and the controversy surrounding its approval - aspartame is safe to use within the approved daily intake (the study carried out by the University of Maryland is clear-cut on this).
Personally, I hate the taste of aspartame. I can feel it right away in foods. Furthermore, I’m not fond of things that are manufactured in a chemical lab, much prefer what mother nature give us, if I have the choice. If I crave something sweet I'd rather resort to real brown sugar or agave syrup (let’s face it, the taste is on a whole different level!). Sweeteners never work for me. If I have to pick one, I'll choose stevia
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