Aspartame: Is it Safe?

What is Aspartame, and is it safe?

With the new sugar tax coming into effect from April 2018, it can be expected that companies will be using low calorie alternatives in their products even more frequently as a means to avoid paying any extra revenue, as you would anticipate they might.

For a number of years, there have been several food additives used as a substitute for sugar to sweeten food and beverages and one of the most popular is aspartame.  Aspartame is an artificial sweetener often used in soft drinks, chewing gum, sweets, yoghurts, crisps and vitamin tablets, not forgetting the little white sweetening tablets found in the small dispensers so many buy to use as an alternative to a spoonful of sugar in their tea or coffee.  It is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.  The intense sweetness means that only miniscule amounts are needed to sweeten products and so the calorie count is significantly reduced, indeed, in products where sugar would usually be the main calorific ingredient, it makes the calorie content far more palatable.  For those with the occasional craving for something sweet, this would seem to be the perfect solution.

As with any miracle product though, it is always worth digging a bit deeper.  The components that make up aspartame are phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol.  Once ingested, the body breaks aspartame down into those original three elements.  Phenylalanine is particularly dangerous for those who suffer from a very rare condition called, phenylketonuria.  These individuals’ bodies are unable to process phenylalanine meaning it can build up in their blood and brain, potentially causing brain damage, so it is important that they monitor what they are ingesting.  With such a toxic effect on this small percentage of the world’s population, it would seem prudent to exercise caution. 

There have been countless controversies about aspartame since it was first developed in 1965 and pronounced safe by the EU in 1994.  Some studies have claimed it causes, amongst other things, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, migraines, seizures, brain tumours, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and even birth defects. It should be noted that none of these have been formally substantiated and that the European Food Safety Authority conducted a study in 2013 which concluded that aspartame was safe, however, these claims will not go away.  There is a constant flow of scare stories about aspartame which continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty over its safety.

In 2007, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Sainsbury’s all announced that they would no longer be using aspartame or any other artificial additives in their own brand products.  They now use some of the other alternative sweeteners that are available such as sucralose and sorbitol.  A product which is widely available and naturally occurring is Xylitol.  This has been known about for over half a century and can be extracted from birch trees or corn cobs so comes from a natural source, although it does have to go through a processing procedure to bring it to point of sale.

Avoiding sugar and replacing it with alternatives about whose side effects there is still debate is not the only option available to us.  A balanced diet including moderate amounts of sugar together with regular exercise is always to be endorsed and will help maintain good health but for those who suffer health issues which mean sugar is a no-go zone, then it’s worth doing your research about the type of sweeteners that are available so that you can make an informed choice about just what you’re putting into your body.