From diet drinks to sweet treats, aspartame is one of the most popular low-calorie sweeteners. Despite its presence in diet foods, aspartame is not calorie-free, it contains 4 calories per gram. Since aspartame is two hundred times sweeter than sugar, you only need a very small quantity of aspartame to create a sweet-tasting product with few or even no calories. Identifying foods that have aspartame is as simple as locating the ingredients list on the nutrition facts label.
Health concerns raised about the safety of aspartame, including increased cancer risk, have not been validated through research. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Cancer Society acknowledge that aspartame is safe for general use within a recommended intake. The FDA sets an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram, equivalent to 21 aspartame-sweetened beverages for a 165-pound person.
Aspartame is safe for use by nearly all healthy individuals, including those with diabetes. The one exception is people who have phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU are unable to metabolize phenylalanine, a component of aspartame. A warning statement on all products containing aspartame advises against consuming it, if you have PKU.
Aspartame is most commonly in low-calorie and sugar-free drinks. Substituting aspartame for sugar and corn syrup in beverages provides a sweet taste, without adding calories, making it an ideal diet drink additive. Look at the ingredients list to find whether your beverage contains aspartame. Aspartame can be found in diet sodas, teas, energy drinks, coffee flavorings, protein shakes, flavored milk, juices and other flavored beverages.
Aspartame is not heat stable, meaning it breaks down when heated to high temperatures. Thus, it is not as widely used in foods that require baking at high temperatures. Aspartame is used as a sugar alternative in low- or reduced-carbohydrate foods such as cereals, granola bars and protein bars. You may find snack foods like low-fat yogurt, pudding, gelatin and fruit cups will contain aspartame.
Desserts and candy that don't require baking at a high temperature use aspartame as a sugar substitute. Check the ingredients list of items such as ice cream, frozen fruit pops, hard candy and chewing gum. Other sugar-free sweet foods like breath mints, syrups and jellies can contain aspartame.
Medicine and More
Some not-so-obvious foods and products contain aspartame. For example, condiments that typically contain sugar, such as ketchup, dressings, sauces and marinades, may use aspartame in their light or reduced-calorie versions. Aspartame can also be in some prescription and over-the-counter medications. The FDA requires that these medications include a statement that they contain phenylalanine.
Food products are constantly changing, and new products are on the grocery shelves every day. The surest way to assess any food or medication is to check the ingredients listing for aspartame.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Position Paper: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners from the Academy
- American Cancer Society: Aspartame: What is Aspartame?
- Food and Drug Administration: Code of Federal Regulations Title 21
- International Food Information Council: Aspartame Brochure
- Calorie Control Council: Aspartame