Aspartame: Secret Killer or Friend in Need?

August 27, 2013


It’s in your soft drinks. It’s in your fruit juice. You stir it into your coffee. But is aspartame an artificial sweetener that we should trust? It sounds like something you’d study in chemistry class.

These days, it’s easy to assume that “natural” means something is good for us and “artificial” or “chemical” means that it’s probably manufactured poison. So what’s the truth about Aspartame?

In order to answer that question, we need to know what aspartame is made of and what the human body does with it once it’s inside us.

Aspartame was discovered by accident when a researcher licked his finger after doing some work in the lab.

( does not recommend tasting your laboratory experiments. However, we confess to tasting the occasional kitchen experiment.)

In 1965, chemist James Schlatter combined aspartic acid and phenylalanine in his lab at G.D. Searle and Co., an Omaha-based pharmaceuticals company that is now part of Pfizer.

Both aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids, the basic building blocks of life. The result was literally sweet.

Upon ingestion, aspartame is broken down almost immediately in stomach acid.In a chemical process called hydrolyzation, aspartame is split back into the two amino acids it started with, along with some methanol as a byproduct.

Some of the methanol breaks down further into formaldehyde. This is where some people freak out. Methanol and formaldehyde sound harmful, and for good reason.

Methanol is the chemical name for wood alcohol, a potent toxin that can cause blindness or death. Formaldehyde is both poisonous and carcinogenic. We certainly don’t want these chemicals in the body.

These chemicals already are in the body, however, in small concentrations. If you eat an apple or drink a glass of orange juice, you are exposing yourself to much more of these poisons than you would encounter in using aspartame.

That’s why scientific studies have concluded that aspartame is safe when used as an artificial sweetener. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved aspartame without restriction in 1996, and the European Union approved its use in 1994.

A 2006 study by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that aspartame’s acceptable daily intake was appropriate, based upon a comprehensive review of previous studies.

Food ingredients - sugar, aspartame and salt on a dark solid wooden background.

There is one exception to aspartame’s safe status. People who suffer from a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria have a mutation that renders a particular metabolic enzyme nonfunctional.

This affects their ability to digest and metabolize certain foods.

People with PKU must severely restrict or eliminate foods such as meat, chicken, fish, beans, eggs, nuts, cheese, and dairy products from their diet, while monitoring their intake of potatoes, bread, pasta, corn, and other starchy foods. And they must avoid aspartame.

Americans consume the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar every day–that’s more than 400 calories.

Artificial sweeteners have come under skeptical scrutiny lately, but the fact remains that they can slash calories off your daily diet and help contribute to weight Especially safe sweeteners like aspartame.

If you don’t suffer from phenylketonuria, you needn’t worry about the occasional soft drink or sweetener in your coffee. You can probably think of plenty of better things to worry about than aspartame.

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