Aspartame – What is it?
I spend a fair amount of time researching nutrition. As I’ve mentioned in few posts recently, I’ve been reading Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss, and earlier this week was reading about Aspartame. At the same time, there seems to be an influx of people on my various social network feeds talking about aspartame and the controversy of its use in countless processed foods available on our supermarket shelves.
Though I’m not an expert, I like to know about the things I’m putting in my body. And if i’m going to invest all this time in research, I may as well make some notes and take you along for the ride…
What is Aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many common processed foods. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and can be found in many sugar substitutes such as Splenda. Since its discovery in 1965, it has been added to over 6000 products you can find on supermarket shelves.
The sweetness of Aspartame has made it a popular ingredient among food manufacturers as a sugar substitute. Just a few examples of products containing Aspartame are diet soft drink (soda, for my American friends), chewing gum, some yoghurts, potato chips and more. Not to mention the sweeteners many people use every single day such as Splenda and Equal. Because it isn’t technically sugar, it can be added to our foods and be marketed as a ‘diet’ food option.
So here’s where things get iffy. Aspartame is linked to having some 90+ side effects including:
- Decreased vision
- Chest palpitations
- And even cancer
Before it was approved for use in the US in 1981, Aspartame was never actually tested for human use. I don’t know about you, but that makes me a bit uneasy. Particularly as so many people unknowingly digest several separate doses of Aspartame. That diet coke you had at lunch, the packet of chips when threethirtyitis hits, even your pasta sauce with dinner could contain it.
In 2003, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) conducted a survey in to see how much Aspartame the average Australian was consuming in their daily diet. The results showed even the higher level consumers were only reaching around 15% of the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 50mg per kilo of body weight (according to US standard).
Several years later in 2005 and 2006, one of the most referenced studies took place. The Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center of the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) studied the effects of various levels of Aspartame exposure on rats from the age of right weeks until death. The results released by Soffritti M, et al. concluded that the rats who had been exposed to higher levels of Aspartame had increased levels of lymphomas and leukaemia’s.
In 2009, the European Commission requested the Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) give their scientific opinion on the above study by the ERF. The panel concluded that there was no need to change the Acceptable Daily Intake Level that had already been set.
So is it safe?
I guess this really depends who you ask. Most government organisations and organisations such as the American Cancer Council say yes, it is safe. There’s still a cloud of suspicion and uncertainty looming over Aspartame though, at least for now.
While I’m not a scientist or an expert, I personally think, like most foods that have undesired effects in our bodies, a small amount is safe. Everything in moderation. It would take a 75kg male over 20 cans of diet soft drink to reach the ADI level of Aspartame, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to not worry about it at all.
There is one group of people that Aspartame is bad for, no matter the amount. When Aspartame breaks down, it gets broken into components including aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formatic acid and formaldehyde. For most people, these are all components we can process without too much hassle. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a genetic disorder that stops the breakdown of phenylalanine. When phenylalanine levels build up in the blood because they can’t be processed, the flow of vital chemicals to the brain is affected. This is generally particularly evident in children, who unless placed on a phenylalanine restricted diet, will end up with abnormal brain development.
To be honest, if you’re that interested in what goes in to your food that you’ve read this whole post, you probably rarely ever eat Aspartame anyway. A diet of lean meats, fruit and vegetables will always be the safest option, particularly if you can’t find non-GMO produce.
Disclaimer: Like I said, I’m not an expert. This is just based off information I’ve found readily available on the internet – it might not be correct either. Make sure you speak with your doctor or a professional nutritionist before you make any decisions based on this information.