Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It was first discovered in 1965 and initially approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1980. It is marketed under a number of brand names, including Nutrasweet and Equal. Aspartame is a common ingredient in diet soda, and is used in literally thousands of different products.
Like milk, nuts, chicken and many other foods, aspartame contains phenylalanine, so it should be avoided by those suffering from phenylketonuria, a rare genetic condition, and one always diagnosed in infancy. For a phenylketonuritic, there is no safe level of aspartame. For everyone else, the FDA has set the Acceptable Daily Intake level of aspartame to 50 milligrams per day for every kilogram a person weighs. Though that level may not sound like much, for a 165 pound person that works out to 3,750 mg of aspartame a day, or about 25 cans of Diet Coke. On average, those who drink diet drinks consume about 200 milligrams of aspartame daily — far less than the FDA limit.
According to the FDA, aspartame is “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved,” but like many other food additives, aspartame has been the object of controversy ever since it first appeared. At various times aspartame has been blamed for migraines, seizures in airline pilots and brain cancer. One of the most quoted of the studies linking aspartame and cancer was done by the Italian Ramazzini Foundation, which held that normal dietary intake of aspartame was enough to cause cancer in rats.
To put it bluntly, none of these claims, including those made by the Ramazzini Foundation, are supported by current studies. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that consumption of aspartame at or below the FDA’s Acceptable Daily Intake level carries any risk.
But, if you are worried about aspartame, by all means reduce the amount you ingest each day. In the long run, for a diet to work you need to feel good about what you are putting in your body. Just don’t go replacing aspartame with sugar.