Everything We Need to Know About Aspartame

 

By Leah R., Lead Lifestyle Consultant, St. Cloud Livea

 

What is all the Hype about Aspartame?

I’m sure you have been hearing all over the media about aspartame and whether or not it will give you cancer. This has probably raised some concerns about the food choices you are making! We at Livea wanted to do our part by being able to filter through all the research and be able to give you valuable information about this highly popular sweetener so you can make informed decisions about the products you consume. So, what is Aspartame anyways?

Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener because it has no nutritional value and no calories. Aspartame is a fine white powder that has no odor and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Because of its high level of sweetness only a small amount is used in products. (11,3) This highly used sweetener can be found in many types of foods and beverages along with other products like medications, oral products, and supplements. Some of the popular brands you will find are Equal, NutraSweet and Sugar Twin. (6) People typically use this sweetener to help manage their blood sugars and for weight control. Standard dietary recommendations suggest limiting added sugars to 10% of total calories to help with maintaining a healthy weight. To keep added sugar this low is very hard for some people and using non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame can help with achieving a lower added sugar intake. (5)

This sweetener has been around since the 1980s and it is one of the most researched food additives available today. Aspartame is made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are 2 amino acids that are naturally found in our body. Methyl is added to these amino acids to give aspartame its sweetness. (10) In 1974 Aspartame was approved by the FDA and considered safe based on the current science that was available.

The Benefits of Using Aspartame

Many people turn to aspartame in their foods and beverages because it helps with reducing their overall calorie intake, keeps their blood sugar more stable and can help decrease their cravings for sugary foods. (2)(4) People that have type 2 diabetes can enjoy foods when sweetened with aspartame and it will not have a negative effect on their blood sugar levels. Being able to enjoy these sweetened foods and drinks can help people living with diabetes feel less restricted and have a better quality of life. Livea utilizes some non-nutritive sweeteners, including aspartame, so clients can still enjoy some sweet tasting foods but at the same time help to wean them off high sugary processed foods while reaching their weight-loss goals. Aspartame has little to no side effects and aftertaste, making it a very popular non-nutritive sweetener available today.

Is it Harmful?

For most people, aspartame will not have negative effects and is considered safe. There are, however, some people that should avoid aspartame. People with sensitivities to non-nutritive sweeteners and people with allergies should avoid aspartame. Some people that have intolerances can have digestive problems like bloating and gas. People with phenylketonuria (PKU) should not consume aspartame and or any products containing phenylalanine as they cannot metabolize it. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that there may be an association between consuming aspartame and liver cancer (8), but there is a lack of convincing evidence for it. (12) According to the IARC Monographs Hazard Classification aspartame is classified as a Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. This is based on limited and no supportive evidence that it causes cancer in humans or in animals.

When aspartame is digested it breaks down into metabolites that are the same as the foods you consume. If you look at the IARC classifications for probable carcinogens to humans, group 2A, red meat and working overnights fall into this category, and if you consume alcohol, that falls into group 1. (9) A known Carcinogen to humans! Sometimes seeing these different categories can give you a little more perspective on the risk assessments you make. The JECFA stated that the acceptable daily intake of aspartame is about 40 mg per kg of body weight and is safe for a person to consume within this limit per day. (1) This would be equivalent to a person consuming around 14 cans of diet soda or about 75 packets of aspartame sweetener per day, if they weighed 155 pounds. With the safety guidelines available for aspartame consumption, you can make the right decisions for yourself and be aware of the risk. Like anything else, moderation is key!

Final Thoughts

Choosing a non-nutritive sweetener like aspartame can be a great option if you are looking to lower your calories and looking to promote blood sugar control. As stated above, aspartame has no convincing evidence that it does cause cancer in humans but there may be other side effects that you may want to avoid if you have certain sensitivities to it. When it comes to sweeteners in general, there are many options available. There are non-nutritive sweeteners that are labeled as “natural” or even “plant based” and just because these sweeteners come from natural sources like stevia, does not mean that they are healthier, safer, or more effective than artificial sweeteners.(3) The word carcinogen can be very alarming as it refers to the possibility of causing cancer, but in many studies, even healthy substances that are consumed in high enough quantities can cause negative health effects! If you choose to enjoy foods and drinks with aspartame, enjoy in moderation! When it comes to real or artificial sweeteners, none of them are healthy in excess! (7) They can be very hyper-palatable and easy to over-consume while offering little to no nutrition. Anytime you can cut back on sweeteners, you will be promoting a healthier lifestyle.

Sources:

  1. World Health Organization: WHO. (2023, July 14). Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released. who.int. Retrieved January 29, 2024, from https://www.who.int/news/item/14-07-2023-aspartame-hazard-and-risk-assessment-results-released
  2. Nutrition, C. F. F. S. a. A. (2023, July 14). Aspartame and other sweeteners in food. U.S. Food And Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/aspartame-and-other-sweeteners-food
  3. Gardner, C. D., Wylie‐Rosett, J., Gidding, S. S., Steffen, L. M., Johnson, R. K., Reader, D., & Lichtenstein, A. H. (2012). Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current use and health perspectives. Circulation, 126(4), 509–519. https://doi.org/10.1161/cir.0b013e31825c42ee
  4. Non-Nutritive sweeteners (Artificial sweeteners). (2023, May 10). www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/nonnutritive-sweeteners-artificial-sweeteners
  5. DietaryGuidelines.gov (Ed.). (2020). Make Every Bite Count With the Dietary Guidelines. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, 9th Edition. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
  6. Office of the Commissioner. (2023, June 9). How sweet it is: All about sweeteners. U.S. Food And Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/how-sweet-it-all-about-sweeteners
  7. Cleveland Clinic Healthessentials. (2023, June 13). Substitutes for sugar: What to try and what to limit. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/best-and-worst-sugar-substitutes/
  8. Christensen, J. (2023, July 14). WHO declares widely used sweetener aspartame a possible cancer cause, but intake guidelines stay the same. cnn.com. https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/13/health/aspartame-who-possible-cancer-cause/index.html
  9. World Health Organization. (2023, June 16). IARC Monographs Hazard Classification. International Agency for Research on Cancer. https://www.iarc.who.int/infographics/iarc-monographs-classification/
  10. EFSA explains the safety of aspartame. (n.d.). European Food Safety Authority. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/corporate_publications/files/factsheetaspartame.pdf
  11. Bailey, D. (2023, February 9). The truth about aspartame side effects. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/aspartame-side-effects#what-is-it