Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a scientist trying to make new ulcer drugs and approved by the FDA in 1981 for dry uses in tabletop sweeteners, chewing gum, cold breakfast cereals, gelatins, and puddings. It was able to be included in carbonated beverages in 1983. In 1996, the FDA approved its use as a “general purpose sweetener,” and it can now be found in more than 6,000 foods.
Aspartame is also known as Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin. It does provide calories, but because it is 160 to 220 times sweeter than sucrose, very small amounts are needed for sweetening so the caloric intake is negligible. The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for aspartame at 50 mg/kg of body weight. To determine your ADI, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 and then multiply it by 50. For example, if you weigh 200 lbs., your weight in kg would be 91 (200 divided by 2.2) and your ADI for aspartame would be 4550 mg (50 x 91). Here is the amount of aspartame in some common foods:
- 12 oz. diet soda — up to 225 mg of aspartame
- 8 oz. drink from powder — 100 mg of aspartame
- 8 oz. yogurt — 80 mg of aspartame
- 4 oz. gelatin dessert — 80 mg of aspartame
- ¾ cup of sweetened cereal — 32 mg of aspartame
- 1 packet of Equal — 22 mg of aspartame
- 1 tablet of Equal — 19 mg of aspartame
Aspartame has been approved for use in over 100 countries. An editorial in the British Medical Journal states that the “evidence does not support links between aspartame and cancer, hair loss, depression, dementia, behavioral disturbances, or any of the other conditions appearing in web sites. Agencies such as the Food Standards Agency, European Food Standards Authority, and the Food and Drug Administration have a duty to monitor relations between foodstuffs and health and to commission research when reasonable doubt emerges. Aspartame’s safety was convincing to the European Scientific Committee on Food in 1988, but proving negatives is difficult, and it is even harder to persuade vocal sectors of the public whose opinions are fuelled more by anecdote than by evidence. The Food Standards Agency takes public concerns very seriously and thus pressed the European Scientific Committee on Food to conduct a further review, encompassing over 500 reports in 2002. It concluded from biochemical, clinical, and behavioral research that the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg/kg/day of aspartame remained entirely safe — except for people with phenylketonuria.”
Aspartame is one of the most controversial artificial sweeteners. There are numerous web sites, books, and articles stating various reasons why aspartame should not be consumed. Some site studies to support their theories while others base their claims on industry-related conspiracies. One fact is that aspartame does get metabolized, meaning that it doesn’t get excreted in the same form that it is when ingested. This is the reason why it can’t be consumed by people with the metabolism disorder PKU. The following is a summary of some of the controversial dangers of consuming aspartame.
Conflicts of interest in the studies performed on aspartame and the way in which its approval was obtained is an ongoing controversy. Dr. Robert Walton surveyed the studies of aspartame in the peer-reviewed medical literature. He states that of the 166 studies felt to have relevance for questions of human safety, 74 had Nutrasweet industry (those who make aspartame) related funding and 92 were independently funded. One hundred percent of the research performed by the company who makes aspartame confirmed aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research found problems with consuming aspartame. Other reports of federal employees working for the companies responsible for the testing and distribution of aspartame are cited on all of the sites and books opposing the use of aspartame.
H.J. Roberts, MD, coined the term “aspartame disease” in a book filled with over 1,000 pages of information about the negative health consequences of ingesting aspartame. Dr. Roberts reports that by 1998, aspartame products were the cause of 80% of complaints to the FDA about food additives. Some of these symptoms include headache,dizziness, change in mood, vomiting or nausea, abdominal pain and cramps, change in vision, diarrhea, seizures/convulsions, memory loss, and fatigue. Along with these symptoms, links to aspartame are made for fibromyalgia symptoms, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, tinnitus, joint pain, unexplainable depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, and various cancers. While the FDA has assured us that the research does not show any adverse health complications from aspartame, there has been some evidence to suggest that some of the following symptoms can be related to aspartame.
One study confirmed that individuals with self-reported headaches after the ingestion of aspartame were in deed susceptible to headaches due to aspartame. Three randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled studies with more than 200 adult migraine sufferers showed that headaches were more frequent and more severe in the aspartame-treated group.
In a study of the effect of aspartame on 40 patients with depression, the study was cut short due to the severity of reactions within the first 13 patients tested. The outcome showed that individuals with mood disorders were particularly sensitive to aspartame and recommended that it be avoided by them.
In an initial study, 12 rats out of 320 developed malignant brain tumors after receiving aspartame in an FDA trial. There have been other studies to both support and contradict this finding. A recent study, conducted by Italian and French researchers indicates there is no association between low-calorie sweeteners and cancer. The researchers evaluated a variety of studies between the years of 1991 and 2004. These studies assessed the relationship between low-calorie sweeteners and many cancers, including oral and pharynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, larynx, breast, ovary, prostate, and renal cell carcinomas. The researchers examined the eating habits of more than 7,000 men and women in their middle ages (mainly 55 years and over). Based on the data evaluated, there was no evidence that saccharin or other sweeteners (mainly aspartame) increase the risk of cancer at several common sites in humans. The debate continues while more research is conducted.
A study done with 14 dieters comparing the effects of aspartame-sweetened and sucrose-sweetened soft drinks on food intake and appetite ratings found that substituting diet drinks for sucrose-sweetened ones did not reduce total calorie intake and may even have resulted in a higher intake on subsequent days. In another study of 42 males given aspartame in diet lemonade versus sucrose-sweetened lemonade, there was no increase in hunger ratings or food intake with the diet group. Weight loss results from consuming fewer calories than your body needs. When you replace a caloric beverage with a noncaloric beverage, you will be saving calories and could lose weight if it is enough calories to put you in a negative balance. For aspartame to increase weight, there would have to be something else going on. There is not enough research to determine if something does exist so the jury is still out on this one.