High-intensity sweeteners have been used as sugar substitutes in many food items. This is because they provide few to no calories when added to the foods.
Aspartame is one of the high-intensity sweeteners that is the most popular and has been extensively used as a sugar substitute. Despite its popularity, it is one of the most controversial artificial sweeteners. Various studies have linked aspartame has adverse side effects.
Read to know what are the dangers of consuming aspartame for you?
What is Aspartame?
Aspartame is the world’s most used low-calorie artificial sweetener which is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). It was discovered accidentally in 1965 by the chemist James Schlatter trying to make new ulcer drugs. Now, it is marketed under the brand name of AminoSweet, NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel, and Sugar Twin.
It is a methyl ester of a dipeptide consisting of two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine. When ingested, aspartame is completely hydrolyzed into its constituent amino acids and methanol in the gastrointestinal tract.
Aspartame, because it is a dipeptide that is completely digested after consumption, is a caloric substance. But, due to its high-intensity sweetness, it requires in small amounts which provides few calories.
Aspartame has been approved for food, beverage, pharmaceutical, and tabletop sweetener uses in more than 100 countries. Currently, it can be found in more than 6,000 foods.
Different food agencies have approved the use of Aspartame in various products which are as follows:
FDA (US Food and Drug Administration)
In 1981, FDA approved Aspartame to use as a tabletop sweetener, in chewing gum, cold breakfast cereals, and dry bases for beverages, instant coffee, and tea, gelatins, puddings, fillings, dairy products, and toppings. In 1983, FDA approved to use in carbonated beverages and carbonated beverage syrup bases. Finally, in 1996, FDA approved Aspartame to use as a general-purpose sweetener. Besides, The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake of Aspartame to 50 mg per kg of body weight per day.
EFSA (European Food Safety Authority)
After a rigorous review of scientific research including both animal and human studies, in 2013, EFSA concluded that aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for the general population including infants, children, and pregnant women. Besides, The EFSA has set the acceptable daily intake of Aspartame to 40 mg per kg of body weight per day for the general population.
JECFA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives)
In 1980, after the evaluation of animal and human studies, JECFA established the safety of Aspartame and set the acceptable daily intake of Aspartame to 40 mg per kg of body weight per day.
Side Effects of Aspartame
Despite receiving approval from different agencies in the world, a number of leading academics have expressed doubts about the use of Aspartame as food additives. The dangers of consuming aspartame may include:
May Increase Cancer Risk
Studies on animals have raised concern about the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener.
A large study at the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center in rats found that a daily dose of 20 mg/kg body weight of aspartame increased the following cancer risk:
- lymphomas, and leukemias in both males and females,
- malignant tumors in both males and females, and
- transitional cell carcinomas of the pelvis, ureter, and bladder in females.
Another study in 1996 observed that aspartame is responsible for increasing the incidence and degree of malignancy of brain tumors in rats.
While studies on humans don’t show the association between the use of aspartame and cancer risk.
In 2006, National Cancer Institute examined data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study cohort. After a 5 years follow-up, it was observed that aspartame intake was not associated with the risk of overall hematopoietic cancer, glioma, or their subtypes in men and women.
A 2013 case-control study also found no consistent association between the use of aspartame and cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, digestive tract, breast, endometrium, ovary, prostate, and kidney.
Although human studies have not provided an association of aspartame intake with cancer risk, these studies have some limitations which include short follow-up, selection bias, and baseline dietary selection.
May Cause Cardiovascular Disease
Artificial sweeteners have been associated with the risk of stroke and heart disease. (Sources – 1, 2)
Observational data from cohort studies have revealed that high nonnutritive sweetener intake such as aspartame is associated with a higher risk of hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular events.
Long-term observational studies at the Department of Medicine have discovered that frequent use of low-calorie sweeteners has been associated with increased long-term cardiometabolic risk such as hypertension, metabolic syndrome, heart attack, and stroke.
Studies at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have reported that aspartame intake is associated with ischemic heart disease, and stroke. Although these findings are suggestive, not conclusive, and require long-term studies.
May Result in Diabetes and Weight Gain
Data from multiple studies have revealed that aspartame has no effect on blood glucose levels and insulin levels and is considered safe for patients with type 2 diabetes.
But various other studies have revealed that aspartame use may increase the risk of weight gain, and may cause glucose intolerance.
A 2018 study found that aspartame may act as a chemical stressor by increasing cortisol levels, and it may also alter gut microbial activity and interfere with the N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, resulting in insulin deficiency or resistance.
A 2016 survey on 2856 adults has revealed that aspartame consumption is associated with greater glucose intolerance and BMI.
Additionally, long-term cohort studies have observed that consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners such as aspartame is associated with increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
May Cause Sperm Damage
Although there are not a significant number of studies claiming the aspartame intake can adversely affect sperm quality, two studies on rats point to a cause for concern and further research.
Research at the International Journal of Impotence Research in rats found that administration of 40 mg/kg body weight of aspartame could reduce sperm count, morphology, morphometry, vitality, and motility.
Another study at the International Journal of Fertility & Sterility in mice observed that long-term consumption of aspartame resulted in reproductive damages in terms of sperm count, survival rate, and motility.
May Adverse Neurobehavioral Health Outcomes
Although research at the Department of Psychiatry has revealed that patients with a history of depression are susceptible to the adverse effects of aspartame and recommended they should avoid this artificial sweetener.
A study at the School of Medical Sciences has claimed that aspartame can elevate plasma cortisol levels and the production of excess free radicals in the brain. These, as a result, may increase the brain’s vulnerability to oxidative stress which may have adverse effects on neurobehavioral health.
Other Side Effects of Aspartame
Although there is not much evidence available that supports these side effects, still they have been found in some of the cases.
- change in mood
- vomiting or nausea
- abdominal pain and cramps
- change in vision
- memory loss, and fatigue
- numbness in the legs
- joint pain, and
- blurred vision.
Who Shouldn’t Consume Aspartame?
The people with the following conditions should avoid the aspartame intake:
Phenylketonuria, commonly known as PKU, is an inherited disorder that increases the level of an amino acid called phenylalanine in the body. It is caused by a defective gene that helps create the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalanine.
Phenylalanine is found in all protein sources such as milk, cheese, nuts, meat, bread, and pasta and in some artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.
People with PKU disease cannot break down phenylalanine efficiently and should avoid their intake of phenylalanine from all sources including aspartame.
When a person consumes phenylalanine having Phenylketonuria disease, a dangerous buildup can develop that can lead to intellectual disability and other serious health problems.
Tardive dyskinesia is a neurological disorder that involves repetitive or involuntary movements in the face and the body.
One finding has found that ingestion of the dietary constituent, phenylalanine, might exacerbate tardive dyskinesia symptoms. The research revealed involuntary movements increased to a statistically and clinically meaningful degree after 90 minutes of phenylalanine intake.
As phenylalanine is also a component of aspartame, it may worsen the tardive dyskinesia condition.
Which Products do Contain Aspartame?
Foods having aspartame include:
- Carbonated soft drinks
- Powdered drinks
- Instant coffee and tea beverages
- Fruit juice
- Tabletop sweeteners
- Dairy products
- Frozen desserts
- Chewing gum