It's sweet like sugar, virtually calorie-free and has no aftertaste, which may be why aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners around today. No doubt, you or someone you know has probably consumed an aspartame product in the past few days, if not the past few hours.
Breakfast cereal, diet soda and gelatin are just a few of the aspartame products you may find on grocery store shelves.
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What Is Aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener accidentally discovered by a scientist researching an anti-ulcer medication in 1965, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation. It's composed of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. When you consume aspartame, your body metabolizes the compound into its amino acids and also methanol, which is a simple alcohol also found in many natural foods, including fruits and vegetables.
Compared to table sugar, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter, which means a little goes a long way. To put it into perspective, one packet of aspartame (1 gram), which has 4 calories, is equal to the same amount of sweetness as 2 teaspoons of table sugar (8 grams), which has 32 calories.
That's a savings of 28 calories, which may not sound like much, but those calories can add up fast. One 12-ounce can of regular cola contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar and 156 calories, while a 12-ounce can of diet cola sweetened with aspartame has zero teaspoons of sugar and only 7 calories.
Controversy Surrounding Aspartame
While it may seem as though aspartame is a clear winner as far as calories and sweetening, it's not without controversy. Do a quick search of the internet, and you may find reports linking the artificial sweetener to headaches and dizziness, as well as cancer.
Despite the fear-mongering, aspartame is one of the most studied artificial sweeteners on the market, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, with more than 100 studies finding no evidence of harmful effects. The National Cancer Institute concurs that there are no links between aspartame and increased risk of cancer.
An October 2013 epidemiological review study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, which included data from the Nurses Health Study (280,000 participants) and the Health Professionals Follow Up Study (51,529 participants), also noted no links between aspartame and cancer or heart conditions, as well as no link with preterm labor that occurs in pregnant people.
Furthermore, many professional health organizations have deemed aspartame safe for consumption, including the Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority and FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives.
The only group that needs to avoid foods with aspartame and drinks with aspartame are those people with the rare inherited disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU). People with this condition lack the enzyme needed to break down the amino acid phenylalanine, one of the two amino acids found in aspartame.
They must limit their intake of foods that contain this amino acid or risk serious health consequences such as irreversible brain damage. In addition to foods with aspartame, people with PKU are also advised to limit their intake of foods high in protein, such as milk, nuts, eggs, poultry and red meat.
Foods With Aspartame
Aspartame is found in a number of sugar-free food products, including:
- Diet soda
- Chewing gum
- Ice cream
- Breakfast cereal
- Sugar-free cocoa mix
The artificial sweetener is also used to add a touch of sweetness to medications, such as cough drops, as well as chewable or gummy vitamins.
While there are many foods with aspartame, the artificial sweetener isn't found in baked goods. The amino acid structure of aspartame isn't stable when heated and loses some of its sweetness during the baking process.
You can also buy aspartame in bulk or packets and use it as you would regular sugar to sweeten your coffee, tea or lemonade. You can also sprinkle it on your grapefruit, oatmeal or bowl of berries for a little touch of sweetness without the calories or the sugar.
Aspartame and Your Weight
Despite being lower in calories and sugar-free, it's not all good news when it comes to aspartame and your health. More specifically, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners may not be a friend to your waistline.
According to a July 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), which included more than 400,000 participants followed over a 10 year period, researchers found an association between the use of artificial sweeteners and an increase in body mass index. The researchers also noted an increase in diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and cardiovascular events in those who used sugar-free sweeteners like aspartame.
While it's not entirely clear why use of calorie-free sweeteners are causing waistlines to expand, Harvard Health Publishing theorizes that use of the artificial sweeteners may make you feel as though you can indulge in other treats since you're saving calories elsewhere, leading to overconsumption of calories. The artificial sweeteners may also alter your taste buds so you crave sweet, unhealthy foods which may lead to poor high-calorie food choices.
Despite the association between consumption of foods with aspartame, weight gain and obesity, the researchers of the CMAJ study suggest more clinical studies are needed to better understand the relationship between artificial sweeteners and your health.
The American Diabetes Association, in a joint statement with the American heart Association, states that artificial sweeteners are OK to use to help with weight control and blood sugar management, as long as you don't use those saved calories and carbohydrates to spend on other non-nutritious foods.
What About Saccharin?
Like aspartame, saccharin has also been heavily scrutinized and once carried a warning label, which was discontinued in 2000, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. This artificial sweetener has been around since the late 1800s (making it the oldest artificial sweetener) and is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. However, saccharin has a bitter aftertaste that many consumers find unappealing.
Like aspartame, there are many foods with saccharin, including chewing gum, canned fruit, diet soda and baked goods. You can also find it in bulk and individual packets in the sugar aisle of your grocery store, and you may use it to sweeten your coffee and tea, as well as your baked goods. Saccharin doesn't lose its sweetening powers when heated like aspartame does.
Read more: What Are Sugar Alcohols - and Are They Safe to Eat?
Try Alternative Sweeteners
Despite being considered a safe option to add a little sweetness to your life, you may still have reservations about using aspartame. Consider the more natural non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit extract. Stevia is a plant-based, calorie-free sweetener that's 200 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit extract is created from crushed monk fruit, which has been part of the Chinese diet for 1,000 years, and it's calorie-free and 10 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.
Read more: Stevia is One Sweet Substitute for Sugar!
Whatever you choose an artificial sweetener or a natural sweetener, be sure to use it in moderation. Instead, eat foods that are naturally sweet, such as fresh fruit, to keep your sweet tooth in check and boost your overall nutrient intake.
- International Food Information Council Foundation: "What Is Aspartame?"
- American Diabetes Association: "American Heart Association/American Diabetes Association Scientific Statement: Non-Nutritive Sweeteners: A Potentially Useful Option – With Caveats"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Sugar Substitutes"
- Aspartame: "Aspartame Products"
- National Cancer Institute: "Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer"
- MyFoodData: "Cola Soft Drink; Diet Cola; Sugars Granulated; Aspartame Equal Packets"
- FoodData Central: "Beverages, Carbonated, Low Calorie, Cola or Pepper-Type, With Aspartame, Contains Caffeine"
- Centers for Science in the Public Interest: "Chemical Cuisine"
- Food and Chemical Toxicology: "Aspartame, Low-Calorie Sweeteners and Disease: Regulatory Safety and Epidemiological Issues"
- ClinicalTrials.gov: "Health Professionals Follow Up Study"
- Nurses Health Study: "The Nurses’ Health Study and Nurses’ Health Study II Are Among the Largest Investigations Into the Risk Factors for Major Chronic Diseases in Women"
- Mayo Clinic: "Phenylketonuria"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, But at What Cost?"
- Candadian Medical Association Journal: "Nonnutritive Sweeteners and Cardiometabolic Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials and Prospective Cohort Studies"
- International Food Information Council Foundation: "What Is Saccharin?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sugar Substitutes"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "NNNS: Aspartame, Methanol and Formaldehyde Relationship"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Additional Information About High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States"
- European Food Safety Authority: "Aspartame"
- World Health Organization: Evaluations of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives: "Aspartame"