Aspartame is one of the most studied (and somewhat controversial) substances in the food world. It is widely used in foods and beverages and is considered a low-calorie alternative to sugar.
For people looking to cut back on sugar for health reasons, artificial sweeteners are a common choice. They are popular due to promoting sweetness in foods without having many of the side effects of sugar (weight gain, tooth decay, disease risk, energy spikes and crashes, etc.). In addition to the health benefits, some people prefer the taste of different sweeteners.
A commonly used artificial sweetener is aspartame, and like many sweeteners, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
What Is Aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is used in many common foods and drinks. It was created in the 1960s and first got FDA approval in 1981. It is considered a low-calorie sweetener and is manufactured in a lab, and it is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). It contains two primary amino acids - aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame has been extensively studied and reviewed due to its prevalence in the food industry, and the FDA has set its ADI (acceptable daily intake) at 50 mg per kg of body weight per day.
- For example, someone who weighs 150 lbs (68 kg) could have up to 3.4 grams (3400 mg) of aspartame a day before hitting this limit
- For reference, a 12 oz can of diet soda contains about .18 grams of aspartame
Common Uses for Aspartame
Aspartame is commonly used to sweeten:
- Sodas – this is by and far the largest category of use
- Other drinks
- Chewing gum
- Breakfast cereals
- Dairy products
- Table sweetener (often blended with other products since it is inherently so sweet)
- Pharmaceutical preparations
Pros and Cons of Aspartame
Like all sweeteners, aspartame comes with its own pros and cons. These include:
- Pro: It has a glycemic index of zero.
- Con: It contains 4 calories per gram, just like sugar.
- Pro: Since it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, you don’t have to use nearly as much to sweeten foods, making it a “low-calorie” sweetener.
- Con: Since it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, it is difficult to determine how much to use in place of sugar to get a similar taste.
- Pro: It contains no sugar, helping you avoid sugar-related diseases and health problems.
- Con: It is not heat-stable (it loses its sweetness when heated) and therefore can’t be used for baked or cooked goods.
- Pro: Aspartame is considered safe for consumption by the FDA.
- Con: It is not safe for individuals with PKU/phenylketonuria to consume (in fact, foods containing aspartame must provide a warning on the label that they contain phenylalanine, the component of aspartame that people with PKU cannot metabolize).
- Pro: The metabolizing of aspartame is the same for healthy children as it is for adults.
- Con: Many people find aspartame to have an unpleasant aftertaste.
- Pro: Rumors that aspartame is linked with cancer are just that – rumors. Aspartame is deemed safe and no connection with cancer has been proven.
- Con: Some people experience adverse side effects after consuming aspartame, including headaches or dizziness.
A World of Choices
Aspartame is just one of many sugar substitutes available to you. Consider its pros and cons as you choose the foods you put into your body.