It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar. While it’s been on the market for years, there are growing concerns about the safety of aspartame.
Aspartame is a calorie-free artificial sweetener, which has been around for more than 50 years. It’s most famously found in diet sodas, like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. It’s in most items labeled as diet or sugar-free, and is found in more than 6,000 products worldwide.
Read the labels, aspartame is in a lot of different stuff. In addition, those packets of Nutra-Sweet and Equal are aspartame.
“This chemical has been studied extensively in animal studies and in human studies”, said Dr. Frank Hu, Chairman of the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard. “It’s still controversial in terms of its long-term health effect.”
The biggest controversy surfaced this summer when the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) caused a stir after suggesting aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
“It means that there is some signal that higher consumption is related to increasing risk of cancer, but it doesn’t mean it will cause cancer or lead to cancer”, said Dr. Hu. “Those findings are very preliminary and have not been replicated in other studies, including ours.”
The Food and Drug Administration has presented over 100 different studies on aspartame which concluded it is safe for human consumption, assuming people follow wants known as the ADI, or Acceptable Daily Intake. This is the one of biggest issues experts have with the W.H.O. report. It’s based on unrealistic consumption numbers.
For example, the average person weighing 150 pounds would have to ingest 18 cans of diet soda a day to raise concern. When it comes to packages of aspartame, the same average person would have to consume 75 packets a day to exceed the ADI.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffrian is a cardiologist and the head of the Food as Medicine Institute at Tufts University. He says aspartame should only be used for one reason, to get people off sugar.
“It’s a bridge to get you away from sugar, but not a destination,” he said.
In the long run, Dr. Mozzafrian said he would like to see people get off sugar, but avoid artificial sweeteners. The doctor has been seeing an increase in diseases like diabetes, cancer, and mental health issues. He feels what we’re eating could be a contributing factor to people coming down with those illnesses.
“I can’t say with any certainty that all of these different additives are causing these problems,” Mozzafrian said. “I also can’t say with much certainty that they are not and that is not something that makes me feel comfortable as a heart doctor, as a nutritionist expert, or a public health expert. We should better understand what is in our food.”
The makers of Diet Coke say they have no plans to change their recipe. As for Diet Pepsi, the company removed aspartame from its drink years ago, but then put it back in after customer complaints and slumping sales.
When it comes to what people should be drinking to make sure of good health, Dr. Hu says it’s pretty basic.
“The best beverages are still unsweetened water, tea, or coffee,” Hu explained.
Both doctors make it clear, that while aspartame probably won’t lead to cancer, it’s a good idea to avoid it altogether. If you are drinking diet soda they suggest, drinking it in moderation, and then moderating the moderation.
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