Aspartame: The Talk Should Be About The Facts First

By Keith Ayoob, EdD, RDN, FADN
Aspartame Talk About The Facts
Despite years of research corroborating the safety of aspartame, acceptance of it by the public – when they’re actually asked for an opinion – is scarce. This is absolutely baffling to me.
August 1, 2016

Despite years of research corroborating the safety of aspartame, acceptance of it by the public – when they’re actually asked for an opinion – is scarce.  This is absolutely baffling to me.

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist, I’m ethically committed to making recommendations based on sound science.  If I give an opinion, I always make certain to state it’s an opinion, and only after the facts are made clear.

This is an important point when we communicate about topics such as low calorie sweeteners, because these issues carry a lot of emotional weight with consumers and health professionals alike.  Facts simply must be at the forefront before we discuss opinion. We can’t know where to take a dialogue if we’re first not clear about the facts.

What are the facts about aspartame?

First and foremost, the FDA states, “Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.”  Around the world, health authorities have endorsed the safety of aspartame.

Second, humans have been eating the three components of aspartame ever since they’ve been eating food.  

Aspartame is a ridiculously simple sweetener.  It has only three components: two amino acids and methanol.  Of the two amino acids, aspartic acid is one we make in our own bodies every day and in large amounts.  It’s also present in our foods.  The other amino acid, phenylalanine, is called an “essential amino acid” because we don’t make it and we MUST get it from our food.  It’s present in any complete protein sources we eat, whether plant-based or animal-based.  Healthful foods such as milk, tofu, eggs, and salmon all have lots of phenylalanine.  Moreover, these two amino acids in aspartame, while bound together in the aspartame compound, are easily and completely separated during digestion, just as they are in food, and absorbed by the body separately, not bound together.  

As for methanol, we eat this one, too, in comparatively large amounts in other excellent foods like tomatoes, grapes, and apples. The amount provided by aspartame is literally less than a drop in a bucket. 

Bottom line: there’s nothing in aspartame that’s new or that we aren’t already eating in much larger amounts in natural whole foods. That’s the reality and the fact.
Is there a plus side to using aspartame?

It’s a great tool for reducing sugar calories.  Like any tool, it should be used wisely, just as a hammer is a great tool but only on a nail, not a toe.  It isn’t a cure for obesity and no sugar substitute was ever intended to be. But a recent meta-analysis did find that “the balance of evidence indicates that use of a low energy sweetener in place of sugar, in children and adults, leads to reduced energy intake and body weight.” (Rogers et al. Int J Obesity 2016.)

Aspartame is a tool for use by many groups, not just overweight people.  Certainly it can help reduce excess calories, which can aid weight management, but diabetics can use it to manage carbohydrate intake when they substitute aspartame for added sugar.

Should people without weight issues be using aspartame?  Why not?  In fact, I often recommend sugar substitutes, like aspartame, for normal weight people.  It’s important for people to reduce their intake of added sugars.  The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines and other groups have recommended capping added sugars at 10% of our total calories.  The American Heart Association goes even further and recommends that women get no more than 100 Calories and men get no more than 150 Calories of added sugar daily.  That’s not a lot, and I’d be happy if people just reduced to 10% of total calories. Aspartame is one way to help get there while still having the luxury of sweetness in the diet. 

Either way, it’s important to carefully spend your added sugar calories.  A recent study found that people using sugar substitutes often have healthier diets.  Maybe the best use of sugar substitutes is to help motivate and enable people – overweight or normal weight – to stay on a balanced diet. 

Keith T. Ayoob is a pediatric nutritionist and clinical practitioner. He serves as director of the nutrition clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and regularly provides counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.

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