Aspartame 101: What Is Aspartame and Aspartame Health Risks
What Is Aspartame? What Is Aspartame Made of?
Aspartame is an artificial non-saccharide sweetener that is commonly added to foods and beverages as a sugar-free alternative. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, so only a small amount is needed to sweeten a food or beverage.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA): “aspartame is made of the two naturally occurring amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which are also components of proteins in our body and in food. The phenylalanine in aspartame has been slightly modified by adding a methyl group which gives aspartame its sweet taste.” (1)
Is Aspartame Bad for You?
While both the FDA and EFSA state that aspartame is “safe for use” as a general-purpose sweetener, the safety of aspartame is highly controversial and there have been many health issues linked to aspartame consumption. A 2017 study in Nutritional Neuroscience states that:
“Aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems including learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.” (2)
Numerous additional reports point to aspartame side effects ranging from things as minor as allergies and weight gain to severe issues like heart problems and birth defects.
Despite numerous studies and reports aspartame is still used in many commercial food products, and is consumed by millions of people that appear to experience little or no side effects from consumption. Some of the studies on the health risks of aspartame were performed on mice, in which the mice were given very high doses of aspartame. In high doses, the aspartame created noticeable health effects, but in small doses side effects were minimal or non-existent (3).
Many health experts still recommend avoiding aspartame and believe that long-term consumption or consumption of high doses of aspartame pose the greatest risk to health.
So, is aspartame bad for you? Again, this is a controversial question but since aspartame appears to have a negative effect on the nervous system and has been demonstrated as toxic at high doses, it is recommended by many health professionals to avoid products with aspartame in them.
Why Is Aspartame Bad for You?
Aspartame has been linked to various negative health effects and seems to have a particularly negative effect on the nervous system. According to one safety review:
“It causes neuropsychiatric reactions such as headache, convulsions and depression. In the body, aspartame is transformed into phenylalanine (Phy), aspartic acid and methanol. These metabolites can affect the neurochemical state of the brain and influence the level of neurotransmitters.” (4)
Aspartame is especially harmful to people who have a condition called phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare type of genetic disease that does not allow the body to properly process phenylalanine, one of the two amino acids in aspartame. A buildup of this amino acid in the body can lead to serious negative health effects, including brain damage (5).
What Health Issues Are Linked to Aspartame?
There have been many claims about the negative health effects of aspartame, with varying levels of scientific evidence to support them (6). Some of the aspartame health risks and aspartame side effects that have been reported include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Skin issues
- Weight gain
- Sugar cravings
- Increased appetite
- Altered gut microbiome
- Weight gain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Birth defects
- Preterm delivery
- Brain tumors
- Behavioral and cognitive effects
A study in 2019 commissioned by the World Health Organization (6) examined the health effects of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners and found that they were linked to:
- Weight gain
- Changes in eating behavior
- Sugar cravings
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Changes in mood and neurocognition
- Irregular blood sugar
Among other side effects.
Because of these aspartame health risks, it is not recommended for women to use aspartame during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. Similarly, it is not recommended for children to consume aspartame.
What Products Have Aspartame in Them?
A majority of products on the market today contain aspartame in them. The most common types of products with aspartame include:
- Sugar-free soda
- Diet soda
- Chewing gum (especially sugar-free)
- Low sugar condiments
- Zero sugar energy bars
- Sugarless candy
- Sugar-free ice cream
- Sugar-free salad dressings
- Low sugar fruit juices
You can also check the ingredients on the product label to see if a product contains aspartame in it.
Sucralose vs. Aspartame
Sucralose, commonly called “splenda,” is another artificial sweetener and sugar substitute that is commonly used in food products and found at restaurants. It usually comes in a small yellow packet. While sucralose is commonly used as a sugar replacement, it also can have negative effects on your health such as promoting inflammation in the body and damaging the gut microbiome (7). Because of this, it is recommended by many health experts to avoid sucralose as well.
Aspartame vs Sugar
While aspartame is a commonly used sugar alternative, is it worth using? Is aspartame worse than sugar? Processed sugar certainly has negative health effects, but these do not seem to outweigh the health risks of aspartame. Regardless, neither are healthy sweetener options. It is much better to choose a natural sweetener or natural sweetener alternative than to use aspartame or processed white sugar.
Are There Any Healthy Alternative Sweeteners to Sugar?
Many sugar alternatives have negative health risks associated with them. In many cases, it seems like a better option to just use a natural sugar like maple syrup, coconut sugar, or date sugar than an artificial sweetener. Still, there are some alternatives to sugar out there that do not have the same health risks that most artificial sweeteners do.
Stevia is probably the most popular healthy sugar alternative. It is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant native to South America. It has long been cultivated for its sweetness and for various medicinal uses. There are several sweet compounds found in the leaves of the stevia plant that are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is also extremely low-calorie.
2. Monk Fruit Extract
Monk fruit is a fruit native to Southeast Asia that is often extracted to make a natural sweetener. Monk fruit extract contains no calories and carbs, may help support better blood sugar management, and has some antioxidants in it as well.
3. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is harvested from the yacon plant, a plant that is native to the Andes mountains in South America. Not only is it a sugar-free sweetener, but it is high in prebiotic compounds that can feed the good bacteria in your gut. Because of these prebiotic fibers, however, too much yacon syrup could cause some uncomfortable digestive issues.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is used as an artificial sweetener. It does not raise your blood sugar or insulin levels like sugar does, and it is much better for you than aspartame or sucralose. However, like other sugar alcohols, xylitol may potentially cause digestive side effects at high doses. For this reason, it is best to use xylitol in small amounts.
Erythritol is a low-calorie sugar alcohol sweetener. While it is found naturally in certain fruits, much of the erythritol used today is produced industrially. It does not spike your blood sugar or insulin levels, but like xylitol, it may cause digestive discomfort if consumed in high doses. It is therefore, recommended to use erythritol in moderation.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than sucrose. It is commonly used as a sugar substitute in various foods and beverages. While it is a commonly used ingredient, there have been many negative health effects linked to aspartame—some even as serious as heart disease or birth defects.
Many of the other artificial sweeteners available pose similar health risks to aspartame. However, there are still some healthy sugar-alternatives available. Stevia and monk fruit extract seem to be the sugar alternatives with the least health risks—and may even have some health benefits. Yacon syrup, xylitol and erythritol are also much safer than aspartame.
Unless you have a health condition like diabetes where you need to monitor your blood sugar levels, you may be better off consuming sugar than eating foods with artificial sweeteners in them. Natural sugars such as those found in fruit are not bad for you, and in fact, are your body’s primary source of fuel. So, sugar is not the enemy—it just needs to be consumed in moderation and from natural sources. Processed sugar is what you need to be careful of.
In the end, what you consume is up to you because ultimately only you are responsible for your health. Still, it is important to understand the health risks of certain foods so you can make the best decisions for your health. Given the many health risks associated with aspartame, many health experts recommend avoiding food products with aspartame in them and finding healthier sugar alternatives instead.