Many of us are trying to reduce consumption of sugar. In an effort to do so, we turn to lower or zero-calorie sweeteners. One of the most controversial sugar alternatives is aspartame. But is it really dangerous?
What is aspartame?
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 entirely by mistake. The chemist James M. Schlatter was at work in his laboratory developing a drug to treat peptic ulcer disease. The story goes that Schlatter accidentally spilled one of the chemicals he was using onto his finger. He licked his finger clean, and in doing so discovered the sweet taste of the aspartame he had spilled.
Aspartame (which can also be identified as E951 on food labels) is composed of 2 molecules: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. These components are amino acids - the building blocks of protein - which are found naturally in protein-rich foods. In the body, aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol, also known as "wood alcohol."
It is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners available on the market. In fact, chances are good that you or someone you know has consumed an aspartame-containing diet soda within the past 24 hours.
Is aspartame good or bad for you?
While the sweetener remains popular, it has also faced controversy in recent years. Many opponents have claimed that aspartame is actually bad for your health. However, a number of regulatory agencies and health-related organizations have weighed in favorably on it. It has gained approval from:
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
- The World Health Organization; American Heart Association
- The American Dietetic Association
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded a review of more than 600 datasets from studies on the artificial sweetener. It found no reason to remove it from the market. So why it has been so controversial?
The controversies surrounding aspartame
The artificial sweetener aspartame has been the subject of several controversies since its initial approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974. The FDA approval of aspartame was highly contested, with critics alleging that the quality of the initial research supporting its safety was inadequate and flawed and that conflicts of interest marred the 1981 approval of aspartame. In 1987, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the food additive approval process had been followed properly for aspartame. The irregularities fueled a conspiracy theory, which the "Nancy Markle" email hoax circulated, along with claims, counter to the weight of medical evidence, that numerous health conditions (such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity, blindness, spasms, shooting pains, seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, birth defects, and death) are caused by the consumption of aspartame in normal doses.
Potential health risks have been examined and dismissed by numerous scientific research projects. With the exception of the risk to those with phenylketonuria, aspartame is considered to be a safe food additive by governments worldwide and major health and food safety organizations. FDA officials describe aspartame as "one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved" and its safety as "clear cut." The weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe as a non-nutritive sweetener.
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