All artificial sweeteners are firmly regulated and can only be used after they have been assessed rigorously for their safety. Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener constitutes of amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame has low calories and is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, so even very small amounts of it can be used without contributing to any calories to the body.
Aspartame is used throughout the world along with cereals, as table-top sweeteners, in low-calorie soft drinks, sugar-free chewing gum, sugar free and vitamin cough drops, yogurt, and various other food items.
Sweetener tablet and sugar. Image Credit: SabOlga / Shutterstock
Safety and Evidence
Aspartame has numerous rumors surrounding it, all claiming that it causes health problems. There are, however, almost 200 studies available on aspartame safety conducted by organizations like the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organization, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) of the European Union, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Food and Agriculture Organization, and some regulatory agencies all over the world. These have found that aspartame is safe for use at the present Acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 mg per kilogram of body weight.
Several studies by EFSA have disproved reports of health issues attributed to aspartame, some of which are discussed below.
- Weight Gain: Experimental studies prove the benefits of using aspartame. It can be used to make tasty food and beverages without adding to the existing body weight. Studies comparing diets with or without calorie sweeteners show that low-calorie sweeteners reduce the intake of calorie and increase weight loss without any change in the taste of the food.
- Headache: In 1987, a study involving the incidence of headache within 24 hours of consumption of aspartame-containing foods was investigated. It was found that the prevalence of headache in aspartame-consumed people was similar to those without aspartame consumption. This result indicates that aspartame and foods prepared with it do not cause headaches in humans.
- Metabolic changes: Effects of aspartame intake on the body metabolism were studied by providing varying doses of aspartame at different durations to the study participants. The results indicated no changes in hematology, no clinical alterations, no abnormalities in the urine, and no differences in the vital signs.
- Premature delivery: Large cohort studies were carried out to investigate the influence of aspartame on preterm delivery. Comparisons were made with women consuming naturally sweetened soft drinks and artificially sweetened drinks. No significant trends were found between these two kinds of drinks on the women delivering prematurely. In fact, the women consuming naturally sweetened drinks showed higher incidence of other medically increased risks.
- Cancer: A study in 1997 conducted on healthy children and children with brain cancer consuming aspartame was investigated; it showed no risk of aspartame causing brain tumor to the normal children. Human epidemiological studies have also evidenced that aspartame does not show any significant risk of bladder cancer. In addition, increased intake of aspartame is not associated with the occurrence of lymphoma and leukemia.
Cognition and Behavior
Research studies have been conducted on the impacts of aspartame on behavioral changes in adults. Ryan-Harshman tested healthy adult men who were given a high dose of aspartame; no evidence of any behavioral or neuropsychologic effects on the adults were found. Follow-up studies of high-dose aspartame given to both male and female college students also found no changes in their behaviors.
In the USA, a team of researchers conducted trials on the effects of aspartame on children. This study also showed no effects of aspartame on behavioral and cognitive changes in children.
Other Health Complaints
Mild complaints like headache, dizziness, and mood swings to more serious ones like birth defects, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Gulf War syndrome, Parkinson’s, lupus, attention deficit disorders, seizures, and multiple sclerosis have been attributed to aspartame intake; these, however, are yet to be proved and studies have found no consistent evidence of aspartame causing harm.
Effects of Aspartame
Aspartame is broken down into aspartic acid, methanol, and phenylalanine; these are present in many beverages and food that consist of protein. It is not expected to cause any health problems.
The European Food Safety Authority conducted studies in 2013 and concluded that consumption of aspartame was safe also for children and pregnant women. However, for people who have the phenylketonuria disease, it is necessary to avoid intake of aspartame and also food that contains phenylalanine.
Phenylketonuria is a genetic disorder which is rare as well as toxic. In people who have phenylketonuria, the body cannot dissolve phenylalanine, an amino acid that is present in many foods. Due to this, the phenylalanine level increases in the blood, and blocks other chemicals from entering the brain. Children with phenylketonuria suffer from affected brain development, which could result in abnormal behavior.
People who have phenylketonuria should limit intake of food and medicines that contain aspartame.
Reviewed by Afsaneh Khetrapal Bsc (Hons)