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Is aspartame going to kill us all?

Updated: Mar 22


aspartame chemical composition

Aspartame has a very bad reputation as an artificial sweetener that’s going to kill us all.  But is the hype real?  To save you some time, the short answer is no.

 

The long answer is obviously a bit more complicated, so if you’re interested, read on to learn what aspartame is, why it’s safe, and how much is a reasonable amount. 


Heading #1: What is aspartame?

Heading #2: How much is safe for me to consume?


 

Heading #1: What is aspartame?


Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is said to be 200 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose).  It was created in the early 1970s and has been used as an additive in many food products since as a calorie-free way to sweeten foods.  It has been approved for use in Canada (by Health Canada) since 1981.

 

The chemical composition is aspartic acid and phenylalanine dipeptide.  Unless you have a strong post-secondary school chemistry background (which I don’t), what that really means is that it’s artificial, or, made in a lab.  That can feel scary if you pay attention to what goes in your body, but aspartame is one of the most studied food additives out there for reasons unknown to me. 


Health Canada has very strong standards for what is safe for Canadians (or anyone who is in Canada) to consume, so the very fact it is approved, and has been approved for consumption for over 40 years can give you confidence that it is safe.



Heading #2: How much is safe for me to consume?


Since aspartame has been so extensively studied, there are very clear guidelines on consumption.  Also, whenever Health Canada is approving something for consumption, they have a variety of parameters they recommend. They have these for vitamins and minerals as well.  For aspartame, there is an acceptable daily intake (ADI). This is the amount of substance (i.e., aspartame) that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without presenting an appreciable risk to health. This measure is also recognized internationally (including by the World Health Organization), so is a good guideline for individuals to follow.

 

Most nutrition guidelines involve math, so for aspartame, the ADI is 40mg/kg body weight/day.  For the 70kg (157lb) person, this would be 2800 mg of aspartame a day. 

 

To figure out what your ADI for aspartame is, take your weight in pounds, and multiply it by 0.45 to get your weight in kilograms.

 

So, how much is 2800 mg of aspartame?

Individual packets of sugar twin or Equal = 80 packets daily

Diet pop (355 ml cans) = 14 cans daily

 

This is a LOT of either sweetener or diet pop.  It is not healthy to be consuming this much of either of those for other reasons; you’ll be replacing healthy foods with these options, which has nothing to do with aspartame.


Heading #3: What about those rats that died?


In the 2000’s a study came out (Soffritti et al., 2007) that showed that rats who were given aspartame died.  This created panic in society and gave aspartame a bad reputation that it has yet to shake.  However, there were massive methodological weaknesses in that study, which questions the danger of aspartame in rats, if they choose to consume it. 

 

For humans, it can be hard to extrapolate the effects on our bodies (since we’re not rats). However, even if we assume that human bodies work the same as rat bodies, the math doesn’t work out. The rats used in this study were approx. 400g in weight and were given doses of 20 g aspartame daily.  That’s 500 mg/kg body weight/day!!  Humans might also die if they have that much.  But, based on Health Canada’s recommendations and the amount of aspartame in our food and fluids, we’re fine. 

 

This is a great example of studies being presented in the media; they’re rarely presented fully, and often result in misleading people.  In my opinion, it causes unnecessary worry and food restrictions.  It generally takes multiple studies showing the same or similar results before recommendations change for the general public. 

 

If we also think about the fact that aspartame has been widely used in the average Canadian’s diet for the past 40 years, we would have already started seeing adverse health effects if there were any to be seen.  This is all evidence that can be used to feel more confident in the safety of aspartame.


Heading #4: So, is aspartame going to kill us all?


No! If you’re now feeling more comfortable with the fact that aspartame isn’t going to be the death of us all, let’s talk about how it can fit into a healthy diet. 

 

The best fit for aspartame is to reduce the number of calories consumed daily.  This can be helpful for weight loss, or for weight maintenance.  It can also help us enjoy certain foods/fluids in a healthy way. 

 

While aspartame can be used in recipes, it can be difficult to substitute it.  Because it is so much sweeter than sugar, the volumes used as significantly less, it isn’t substituted 1:1 – your recipe would be 200 times sweeter than normal!!


My recommendation is to consider aspartame with fluids.  Calories that are drank can add up extremely fast, often without knowing it.  Swapping calorie-containing drinks with calorie-free drinks can result in significant decreases in daily caloric intake, leading to weight loss/maintenance over time. 

 

For example, one can of Coke contains 139 calories, while a can of Diet Coke (or Coke Zero) contains 0 calories.  A double double contains 96 calories from sugar alone. These are easy ways to reduce sugar intake bit by bit, that over time can make a difference over time.

 

As I said above, the goal isn’t to replace healthy foods with sweetener, so it’s always best to have a solid foundation of balanced meals and snacks.  But, if you’re a big coffee drinker, or enjoy pop daily, consider swapping sugar for aspartame to reduce your caloric intake.

 

As Canadians (or people eating food or drinking fluids in Canada), we can rest assured that our food and drinks are safe.  But, if you have any concerns about our food supply, or want to know what would work for your body and lifestyle, a registered dietitian can help! 


Reach out and we can discuss your concerns anytime!

 

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