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  • Writer's pictureRayki Goh, MSc

Aspartame: The Sweetener That's Caught in the Hot Seat

Article Part-I/II


Dear Food People,


Have you ever wondered who discovered Aspartame (E951) and why it is now in so many food products? Between the rise of sugar taxes and obesity rates, aspartame has been getting a lot of attention lately. Recently, it has been more under fire than ever before. This raises the question: Why now?


Have you ever wondered who discovered Aspartame (E951) and why it is now in so many food products? With the rise of sugar taxes and obesity rates, topics related to sugar have been discussed a lot lately, and aspartame is not one to be spared. If you haven't heard, aspartame has been under fire more than ever before. This raises the question: Why now?


Food and beverage industries have utilized aspartame, an artificial sweetener, for over 40 years. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar but has zero calories. This makes it a popular choice for people who are trying to lose weight or control their blood sugar levels.


There are concerns about aspartame's safety and potential health risks. Some people believe that it is unsafe and can cause a variety of health problems. Others believe it is safe, and the controversy is based on misinformation.


In this two-part article, we will take a look at the history, science, and controversies surrounding aspartame. In the first article, we will lay out the facts and discuss discussions revolving around recent news. In the second article, we will explain the biochemical reaction and how aspartame is metabolised in our body after consumption.


Read on and decide for yourself whether aspartame will rise like a phoenix under the flames of scrutiny. Or will it be consumed by the fire and its reputation burned to ashes?


From Accidental Discovery to Sweet Sensation

In 1965, a chemist named James Schlatter stumbled upon a taste that would revolutionise the world. While working at G.D. Searle & Company, Schlatter accidentally discovered aspartame—an amalgamation of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, that created a symphony of sweetness. G.D. Searle began marketing aspartame under the brand name Equal in 1970. Initially marketed as a tabletop sweetener, Equal later received approval for use in carbonated beverages and other food products.


Fact: The Controversy Surrounding Aspartame

Aspartame, like any enigmatic elixir, has attracted sceptics and critics. Concerns have emerged, associating aspartame consumption with headaches, dizziness, seizures, and even cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it as "possibly carcinogenic to humans," based on a review of 100 studies.


However, it is important to note that the evidence is limited. A study published in PLOS Medicine linked aspartame intake to higher risks of breast and obesity-related cancers.


Nonetheless, consuming aspartame in moderation poses no significant health risks for the majority of individuals. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for aspartame, set at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, allows an adult weighing 60 kilograms to safely indulge in up to 3,000 milligrams per day.

 

To put it into context, we know that a 330-ml can of Diet Coke contains 180 milligrams of aspartame. This means that an adult weighing 60 kilograms should not consume more than 16 cans of diet coke per day! But is it even possible for anyone to consume 16 cans in a day and every day?!


Fact: The Different Types of Foods and Beverages that Contain Aspartame

Aspartame finds its way into a myriad of treats, including diet sodas, sugar-free gum, cereals, yoghurts, desserts, cough syrup, and some prescription medications. While it sweetens the days of many, individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder, need to be cautious. Aspartame contains phenylalanine, which can be harmful to those with PKU due to their inability to metabolise it properly.


Aspartame vs. Sugar Tax, or Too Soon?

Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener, meaning it does not contain any calories. However, it can still be subject to a sugar tax in some jurisdictions. This is because a sugar tax is typically levied on beverages that contain added sugar, regardless of whether or not they also contain non-nutritive sweeteners. Regular Coke contains added sugar, while Diet Coke does not. Added sugar is defined as any sugar that is not naturally occurring in a food or beverage.


For example, in the United Kingdom, a can of regular Coke (330 ml) contains 35g of sugar, which is equivalent to 8 teaspoons of sugar. This means that a can of regular Coke would be subject to a sugar tax of 18 pence in the UK. In contrast, a can of Diet Coke (330 ml) contains zero grammes of sugar. This means that Diet Coke would not be subject to the sugar tax in the UK.

 

Given the potential shift in consumer preference from diet to regular Coke, will there be an increase in sugar tax revenue?

 

Whether or not aspartame is subject to a sugar tax is a matter of debate. Some people argue that it should be exempt, as it does not contain any calories. Some argue that it should be taxed because it can still negatively impact health. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to tax aspartame is up to each individual jurisdiction.

 

Essentially, when it comes to health consciousness, we should always consume all foods in moderation.


 

Further Reading:

  1. Wikipedia, n.d., Aspartame controversy. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame_controversy.

  2. Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review, n.d., The Aspartame Controversy of 1981: The Hidden Truth Behind the Not-So-Sweet Artificial Sweetener.

  3. Harvard DASH, n.d., The History of Aspartame.

  4. PMC (PubMed Central) - NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), n.d., Aspartame—True or False? Narrative Review of Safety Analysis of General Use in Products.

  5. USRTK.org, n.d., Aspartame: Decades of science point to serious health risks.

  6. Office for Science and Society - McGill University, n.d., Aspartame: A Bitter-Sweet Controversy.


 

The information provided in our articles is for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. The content on our website, including articles, is not meant to endorse or promote any specific medical treatments, products, or procedures. The information provided is based on general knowledge and research at the time of writing. Medical practices and knowledge are constantly evolving, and what may have been accurate at the time of publication may not be current or applicable today.

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