The following two questions came into the Aspartame Resource Center. We asked Nancy Schwartz, PhD to respond.
I drink diet sodas sweetened with aspartame every day. Is this safe?
Health and regulatory authorities in more than 130 countries around the world have concluded that aspartame is a safe sweetener for use in numerous foods and beverages, including diet soft drinks. This decision is based on extensive scientific research conducted over several years. In fact, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested ingredients in our food supply and has been enjoyed by millions of consumers for more than 25 years.
As a low-calorie sweetener, aspartame is used to impart a sweet taste without all of the calories supplied by sugars. For those battling overweight and obesity, substituting diet soft drinks for regular sodas can be an effective tool for cutting calories and helping to manage body weight. A 12-ounce (355 ml) can of a regular soft drink has about 150 calories while the same amount of a diet soft drink has only 1 or 2 calories. This can make a huge difference for someone who drinks 1 or more cans of regular soft drinks every day, as a saving of 150 calories a day can potentially add up to a 15-pound weight loss over a year. Long-term weight management, of course, is a result of healthy eating and active living, and is not just a matter of substituting diet soft drinks for regular sodas.
Aspartame-sweetened diet soft drinks can certainly be part of a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of water and nutritious beverages like low fat milk and vegetable and fruit juice. People who drink more than 1 or 2 diet sodas a day should be sure that their soft drink intake is not taking the place of adequate amounts of water and nutrient-rich beverages that are an important part of healthy eating.
In approving aspartame for use as a sweetener in foods and beverages, authorities established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40-50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (Health Canada uses 40 while the US Food and Drug Administration uses 50). The ADI is the level an individual can safely consume daily for a lifetime without risk to health. To reach an ADI of 50 mg/kg, a 150-pound person would have to drink ~20 cans (12 oz) of diet soft drinks, an intake that would definitely qualify as excessive. Recent US data showed that among those who consume aspartame regularly, average intake is ~5 mg/kg per day, well below the ADI of 50 set by FDA.
Although aspartame is safe for most individuals, people with the rare genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU) should not consume aspartame because of its phenylalanine content. PKU is detected at birth through mandatory screening of newborns. Once diagnosed, individuals with PKU must limit and carefully monitor their intake of the amino acid phenylalanine that is found in meats, milk, fruits and vegetables as well as in aspartame. This is why all foods and beverages containing aspartame must indicate on their labels that the product "contains phenylalanine."
Despite extensive scientific evidence supporting the safety of aspartame, misinformation and allegations linking aspartame to various ailments continue to be promoted in the media and on the Internet.
For a brief review of the most common allegations and the scientific facts refuting them, see www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/aspartame-eng.php.
Is it safe for my children to have foods and drinks that contain aspartame?
The US Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies around the world have declared aspartame to be a safe low-calorie sweetener for adults and children. The safety of aspartame as a sweetener in foods and beverages is based on thorough testing at amounts much higher than people are likely to consume. Research clearly shows that children handle aspartame the same way as adults.
Highly respected independent health organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association have also recognized the safety of aspartame for children, based on well-documented scientific evidence. However, children who are born with PKU (phenylketonuria), a rare condition that is diagnosed through mandatory screening at birth, should not consume aspartame. Individuals with PKU must strictly limit their intake of the amino acid phenylalanine that is found in protein foods (meat, milk, vegetables) and in aspartame.
Aspartame is used in foods and beverages as a replacement or substitute for some or all of the sugar, thus lowering the calorie content of the product while maintaining a sweet taste. Young children, especially those under 2 years of age, need adequate calories to fuel their rapid rate of growth and development. Parents are therefore advised not to impose 'dieting' or calorie restriction on their young children. However, with childhood obesity on the rise in our society, older kids may actually benefit from the lower calorie content of aspartame-sweetened products if used as part of a healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity. As well, because aspartame is not a carbohydrate, it does not promote tooth decay the way sugar does. Although this may be advantageous for kids, there is no substitute for good oral hygiene habits and regular dental check-ups.
If a child is eating aspartame-sweetened foods and drinks on a daily basis, it might be best to assess the child's diet and eating habits to ensure that sweets like soft drinks and desserts are not taking the place of more healthful foods like milk, fruit and vegetables. Children should be encouraged to make water their beverage of choice to quench thirst. Enjoying a soft drink should be an occasional treat rather than a daily event.
Despite Internet and media promotion of urban myths about aspartame, its safety has been thoroughly examined and reconfirmed by health authorities and international expert groups around the world.
Nancy Schwartz, Oakville, ON, is a registered dietitian and provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.