Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame Safety

By Jennie McCary
Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame Safety
The Internet abounds with myths surrounding aspartame, making it difficult for consumers to decipher fact from fiction. Despite the controversy, aspartame is one of the most widely studied ingredients in our food supply, with hundreds of scientific studies documenting its safety.
April 11, 2007

The following questions came into the Aspartame Resource Center. We asked Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD to respond.

Is aspartame safe? Is it FDA approved?

Simply put, yes it is. This is a common question as consumers are bombarded with misinformation about the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, particularly aspartame. The Internet abounds with myths surrounding aspartame, making it difficult for consumers to decipher fact from fiction. Despite the controversy, aspartame is one of the most widely studied ingredients in our food supply, with hundreds of scientific studies documenting its safety. Leading health organizations, including the American Dietetic Association and the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, confidently confirm.

Aspartame has a long history of safety. It was first approved by the FDA in 1981 for use as a tabletop sweetener in dry foods, expanded to beverages a couple years later, and was approved for use in all foods in 1996. Now aspartame can be found in over 6,000 food products on supermarket shelves, helping to meet consumer demands for lower-calorie products.

Often, aspartame is referred to as an "artificial sweetener," and the term may actually cause unnecessary concern among consumers because there is a tendency to be more cautious about "artificial" products compared to "natural" products. However, the truth is that aspartame is made up of two amino acids--aspartic acid and phenylalanine--which are found naturally in greater amounts of common foods, such as chicken, milk, and vegetables. Critics cite the small amount of methanol produced from the breakdown of aspartame as a safety issue, but again compared to a serving of diet soda, fruit and vegetables juices produce more methanol.

The FDA's Acceptable Daily Intake for aspartame is set at 50 mg/kg of body weight. Translated into food product this equals 20 cans of diet soda a day for a 150 pound adult. It is important to note that this is not a specific cut-off point, but a conservative safe exposure level over a lifetime. Adult consumption is well below the ADI, and consuming in excess of this amount on occasion will not cause harm.

The bottom line: Products containing aspartame are safe to consume in moderation as part of a healthful diet. They are an effective tool for managing weight and can help individuals with diabetes effectively control their carbohydrate intake.

Does the heat affect the safety of aspartame or the quality of ingredient?

One of the attractive qualities of this sweetener is that it can be used in baking and cooking. Substituting sugar with an aspartame-sweetened low-calorie sweetener can lower calories and carbohydrates in favorite baked goods and snacks, allowing more flexibility in the diets of consumers, particularly those with diabetes.

Because aspartame is composed of two amino acids, it can lose some of its sweetness when cooked or baked at high temperatures for a long period of time. The heat does not affect its safety; it just may not result in a product as sweet as desired.

Your best bet to creating lower-calorie dishes with aspartame that maintain sweetness is to add the sweetener at the end of the heating process and to use recipes designed just for this low-calorie sweetener, such as those found at www.equal.com.

Jennie McCary, Albuquerque, NM, is a registered dietitian and provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.


Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame Safety

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