The next time you drink diet soda or eat low-fat yogurt, look closely at the labels; the sweetness you taste may be due to the artificial sweetener aspartame. This commonly used sweetener is touted as "diet" because it does not contain any calories. This chemical sweetener has been used commercially since the 1980s and is found in a range of food and drink products. Aspartame is also used as a powdered sweetener by diabetics and other individuals trying to cut down on calories and sugar. Though there has been extensive research on the safety of aspartame, there is much debate on possible side effects, including muscle cramps and pain.
Aspartame is marketed under the brand names NutraSweet, Canderel and E951 in Europe. This white powder is almost 200 times sweeter than sugar and is used to sweeten tea, coffee, beverages and foods. Unlike sugar, aspartame does not raise your blood sugar levels when ingested. This artificial sweetener does not directly enter your bloodstream but is first broken down into the chemical compounds aspartic acid, methanol and phenylalanine in your intestine. GreenFacts.org, an independent nonprofit group that reports on health and the environment, notes that these chemicals then enter your bloodstream and must be filtered and eliminated from your body by your liver and kidneys.
Using aspartame, including weight control. Because it does not contain any calories, it is added to sweetened foods and beverages that are marketed as diet or sugar-free. In comparison, a teaspoon of sugar contains approximately 16 calories. Aspartame is also considered safe if you have diabetes, because it does not contain carbohydrates and will not raise your blood glucose or sugar levels. Additionally, aspartame will not contribute to dental decay because it does not contain sugar.
Aspartame Effects on Muscles
Research conducted at Washington State University reports a link between certain artificial food additives and muscle pain and cramps. The study notes that patients with a chronic pain disorder called fibromyalgia, or FM, showed improved symptoms after completely removing aspartame and a food additive called monosodium glutamate, or MSG, from their diet. This is thought to occur because both aspartame and MSG are "excitotoxins" that can trigger excess activity in a nervous system called NMDA. When ingested into your body, aspartame may signal the nerves in this system to release high amounts of neurotransmitter or chemical messengers that cause muscle contraction and cramping. However, this research is ongoing and not yet conclusive.
Additional Possible Health Concerns
The American Diabetes Association states that there is no evidence that shows a connection between aspartame and an increased risk of cancers. Other concerns of aspartame include headache pain, seizures, mood changes and weight gain, but GreenFacts.org reports that research has shown that aspartame does not increase the risk of these health concerns. The FDA has outlined acceptable daily intakes for artificial sweeteners. Only consume aspartame within the acceptable amounts, and read food labels to check which of the foods you are eating contain this artificial sweetener, since it is added to a surprising number of foods and beverages, even chewing gum. The University of Maryland Medical Center advises that individuals with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, should avoid aspartame. People with PKU cannot break down phenylalanine, which is one of the byproducts of aspartame in your body. Additionally, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid aspartame and other artificial food additives.