Aspartame: The Skinny on its Safety

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This post originally appeared on www.HealthBytesNYC.com

These days it’s hard to remember a time before artificial sweeteners. The little pink, blue and yellow packets of zero-calorie sugar substitutes have made their way into almost every food establishment, including hospitals. These products have all the sweetness of regular sugar without the added calories, making them a great substitute for anyone trying to limit calorie or carbohydrate intake. Diabetics especially use artificial sweeteners to enjoy sweet foods and beverages without adding sugar.

Conflicting Reports
Artificial sweeteners have gotten some bad press over the past few decades, in particular, aspartame, known commercially as Equal. It debuted in the 1960s and was approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. During the 1980s, reports that aspartame was linked to cancer in rats began to circulate. Now 30 years later, the controversy still continues. In recent news, the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) in Italy conducted a study to evaluate if feeding mice high levels of aspartame over their lifespan would lead to an increased incidence of cancer. The study did find that in male rats, there was significantly more carcinoma found after death.

The Final Verdict—It’s Fine
The FDA reviewed the European study and published a statement saying it, “does not support ERF’s conclusion that aspartame is a carcinogen.” The FDA concluded that the study did not provide enough evidence that aspartame is unsafe to consume in humans. Likewise, past studies done in humans have not supported similar findings. In addition to the FDA, The American Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics performed its own evaluation of research studies and reported that aspartame was not associated with adverse health effects in the general public. In further support, The National Cancer Institute released a fact sheet in 2009 on aspartame, which states, “There is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans.”

But, How Much is OK?
Despite rumors, the overwhelming evidence is in support of aspartame. Which leaves the question, how much aspartame is a safe amount? The FDA has determined that a daily consumption of less than 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight is acceptable. A typical 12-ounce diet soda has about 180 mg of aspartame. Bottom line: A person who weighs 160 pounds has to drink more than 20 diet sodas a day to exceed the safe consumption level of aspartame.

Benefits Outweigh Risks
Until the evidence proves otherwise, it’s safe to say that the benefits of a non-calorie sweetener like aspartame outweigh the risks. Decreasing the amount of calories and sugar in the foods and beverages we consume can help promote weight loss. With obesity on the rise in the United States, losing some pounds can make a difference in our daily lives and for disease prevention in the future.

Stephanie Mendez, RD is a clinical dietician at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals in the food and nutrition services department.


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