Aspartame has been blamed for every ailment under the sun from multiple sclerosis to ingrown toenails. But what actually is Aspartame? And what should we believe?
Aspartame: The facts
Aspartame is a nutritive sweetener made from two amino acids - the building blocks of protein - and is one of the most commonly used ingredients in low-calorie sweeteners.
When consumed, it breaks down into amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine and a small amount of methanol.
While methanol is found in many every day foods and drinks, it is this by-product and its conversion to the chemical formaldehyde, which is at the heart of controversies about aspartame’s safety.
Various studies have attempted to uncover whether there is a possible link with aspartame intake and adverse health effects on brain function, including migraines and seizures as a result of increased exposure to formaldehyde.
Exposure to large amounts of formaldehyde has been shown to be harmful. But the human body has a knack of coping just fine with small amounts of harmful chemicals - take alcohol, for example.
The question is: How much aspartame is safe to consume?
Our biggest exposure to aspartame comes from diet soft drinks and its acceptable daily intake varies depending on the body weight of the person consuming it.
However, guidance from the Food Standards Agency in 2008 suggested an adult would need to consume 14 cans of a sugar-free drink every day before they reached a level which could pose any sort of health risk.
This guidance crucially assumed the sweetener was used at the maximum permitted level and in practice, most drinks combine aspartame with other sweeteners, so drinkers are actually likely to be exposed to an even lower level - ignoring the gas implications of knocking back 14 cans of fizz a day!
People with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) are one group who cannot safely consume aspartame, according to the FSA. But for the rest of us, “there are far more important things in our diet and nutrition that we ought to be concerned about," says University College Hospital London consultant endocrinologist and nutrition expert Dr. Nick Finer.
"Aspartame is one of the least 'artificial' of sweeteners, it is just two peptides which you find in any protein that you eat or drink, it is not actually something alien or modified," he explains. "There are very good toxicological and clinical studies which have not suggested anything harmful and a small number of poor studies suggesting otherwise.
“If you're looking at very high consumers of aspartame they're probably also high consumers of all sorts of other things, such as benzoate, tartrazine and various other antioxidants, so it's very hard to single out any one particular ingredient," he adds, citing consumption of salt, red meat and trans fats as more pressing concerns.
Are there any benefits?
But even if the risks of consuming Aspartame are low, are there any health benefits?
Sweeteners are often used by Type 2 diabetics to satisfy sweet cravings, without adversely affecting their blood sugar or insulin levels. They are also traditionally marketed as an effective tool to combat obesity and lose weight.
After all, if you're drinking three cans of 'proper' Coke a day and you substitute them for diet low calorie versions, surely it’s a no-brainer that this lifestyle change could help weight loss?
But some studies suggest that the reduction of sugars and carbohydrates can result in people compensating for the missing calories by eating more of other things – a bit like saying to yourself: “I can have that slice of cake because I went to the gym earlier.”
Therefore, the effect of mitigating excess calories may be less clear-cut. Indeed, some early individual studies have suggested aspartame could actually contribute to weight gain and increase hunger by stimulating the appetite. However, a review of all published papers on aspartame since 2002 from the European Food Safety Authority last year stressed there was no evidence to support this idea.
With obesity rates on a steady upwards trajectory, perhaps the best thing that sweetener producers can claim is that, without them, us Brits would be even bigger.
And that’s a hard one to swallow.
What are the alternatives?
Health risks aside, aspartame-based products can be more expensive than other sweeteners, have a limited shelf life and are not stable when heated to high temperatures. As such, shoppers and cooks are increasingly turning to other natural alternatives, which fill the gap.
One up-and-coming UK company which has benefited from this trend is Sweet Freedom, which produces what it claims is the first natural sweetener made 100% from fruit - "apples, grapes, carob and nothing else".
While the product still has calories, it has 25% less sugar, requires 50% less gram for gram than other alternatives and is free from chemicals, enzymes, additives and GM ingredients. It also recently won a Great Taste Gold Award.
Co-founders and fellow foodies Tina Michelucci and Deborah Pyner say shoppers have switched to the squeezy bottled syrups largely for their taste, which many children favour over honey and for cooking and baking.
My theory about Asparatame conspiracy theorists
With the UK’s total sweetener market now worth about £51m , it’s no surprise to me that there are many conspiracy theories about low-calorie sweeteners.
The sceptic inside me wonders whether some of these people are employed by the sugar industry. But the reality is many of the sugar giants themselves are now churning out sweeteners - take Cargill and its Truvia branded stevia-based sweetener, which launched in the UK at the beginning of the year, as a case in point.
The amount of refined sugars we put into our mouths remains a very real concern in view of its link to weight gain and therefore perhaps a reduction in sugar consumption is no bad thing.
Remember: many diet drinks are not designed to be nutritive but to maximise taste. If you're going to buy a can of Coke, for example, why not go diet and save on the calories and more importantly the sugar.
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