A K-State nutrition expert weighs in on a recent scientific report showing that aspartame is safe for most people to consume.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Many low-calorie foods, diet beverages and even chewing gum contain the ingredient aspartame, a sugar substitute or artificial sweetener. Consumers can also buy the product in bulk at their local supermarkets to use for baking or adding sweetness to their morning oatmeal or coffee, for example.
Aspartame, which was approved as a safe food ingredient by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 30 years ago, has served as a popular alternative to sugar, but it has also caused some concern. Does consuming an artificial ingredient like aspartame harm a person’s health over time?
A report published in December 2013 by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) shows an extensive re-evaluation of aspartame as a food additive. The EFSA’s panel on food additives and nutrient sources added to food concluded that aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for the general population to consume at a level previously established—that is, 40 to 50 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day.
That safe level applies to the general population, including infants, children, adults and pregnant women, said Mary Meck Higgins, a registered dietitian and K-State Research and Extension human nutrition specialist. Those who have a rare medical condition called phenylketonuria, or PKU, are an exception to the general population and should not consume aspartame.
“The label of a food product containing aspartame says, ‘Not for people with PKU,’” Higgins said. “That’s because people with this health problem should restrict all foods that have phenylalanine in it, including aspartame.”
Aspartame is a white powder that is made up of two amino acids, Higgins said. One is phenylalanine, and the other is aspartic acid. Aspartame is sold under various brand names that include Equal and NutraSweet. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so just a little bit of that white powder is going to make food very sweet.
Putting it into perspective
Because a little bit of aspartame goes a long way, most people don’t come close to reaching the maximum daily safe level.
“All of the food additives in the United States are regulated by the FDA, which sets its aspartame standard at 50 mg/kg of body weight per day,” Higgins said. “The Europeans set their standard at 40 mg/kg of body weight per day. This is the amount that people can consume on a daily basis during their whole life without any appreciable risk to health.”
The expert panel that completed the recent report estimated that people who take in the highest level of aspartame consume about 36 mg/kg of body weight per day, which is still under the safe level.
As an example, taking the 40 mg/kg of body weight per day guideline, Higgins said someone who weighs 200 pounds could consume 3,600 mg of aspartame per day. To put that into perspective, consider the food that contains the highest level of aspartame—diet soda. A 12-ounce can of diet soda has about 180 mg of aspartame, depending on the brand.
“If you were 200 pounds, and you drank 20, 12-ounce cans of diet soda a day, that would be the maximum you could have for that safe level,” Higgins said. “A 50-pound child who drank five, 12-ounce diet sodas or three 20-ounce bottles would be at that maximum safe level for a day.”
Most people don’t consume that amount every day for their whole life, she said.
About the report
“Aspartame has repeatedly been found to be safe for a long time, but it keeps getting a lot of public interest,” Higgins said. “The safety of aspartame and all food additives are reviewed regularly. The 2013 report from Europe confirmed many earlier findings.”
Higgins said the European panel started the review in May 2011 and included a risk assessment, literature review, examination of animal and human studies related to aspartame, analysis of published and unpublished data, and a close look at aspartame and its breakdown products.
“They looked to see if there was evidence that aspartame caused damage to genes or that it induced cancer and found no evidence for that,” Higgins said. “They also concluded that aspartame does not harm the brain, the nervous system, or affect behavior or brain function in children and adults. Similarly, there was no risk to the developing fetus in pregnant women.”
The report noted that aspartame in the gut is broken down very rapidly. The three main breakdown products -- phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol -- are all found naturally in other foods such as proteins, fruits and vegetables. Also, our bodies make methanol.
Still, the public concern about aspartame is high, Higgins said. A lot of information about those concerns can be found online, but most of it is anecdotal. The European panel found that the anecdotal data had so many severe limitations that it could not be analyzed.
"The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded years ago that the wide variety of health complaints by some people who consumed aspartame were generally of a mild nature, and that although certain individuals may have an unusual sensitivity to the product, the data did not provide any evidence for the existence of serious, widespread, adverse health consequences," Higgins said. "Governing authorities in major countries around the world, after evaluating published literature, have also judged aspartame to be safe."
Higgins said that people who wish to avoid aspartame for any reason can do so by reading a food's ingredient list to see if the product contains aspartame.
For the full EFSA report, visit European Food Safety Authority. A video interview with Higgins is available at Video: Sweet relief for artificial sweetener lovers.