Is Aspartame Dangerous?

Q: I received an e-mail recently that has been circulating around the Internet since 1995. It concerns the sweetener aspartame. Is this sweetener dangerous to use?

Doris Mountjoy
Escondido, California

Diabetes Health asked Marion Franz, MS, RN, CDE, of Nutrition Concepts by Franz to respond to this.

A: This e-mail and others like it continue to be passed around on the Internet even though there is no scientific evidence to support the claims linking aspartame to fibro-myalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, Gulf War syndrome and seizures.

Repeated studies in peer-reviewed journals show no adverse effects of aspartame in relation to seizures (in rats, children, or adults), weight gain, body temperature, cognitive/behavioral/neuropsychiatric/neurophysiologic function, brain/intestinal/liver hormones or enzymes, brain tumors, cancer, birth defects (in rats or humans), Parkinson’s disease, allergic responses, blood pressure, or carbohydrate and lipid metabolism.

In 2001, the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology published an evaluation of aspartame’s use and safety since its approval (vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 221-233). This evaluation, which cited extensive scientific research investigating various allegations, reported that no causal relationship between aspartame and adverse effects had been found and that, even in amounts many times what people typically consume, aspartame is safe.

For example, 12 ounces of a typical diet drink contain about 200 mg of aspartame. Healthy men have ingested up to 10,000 mg of aspartame without exhibiting any side effects.

Many organizations—including the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the Fibromyalgia Wellness Letter and the American Diabetes Association—have issued statements refuting the claims that have been circulated on the Internet.

Aspartame does contain methanol [wood alcohol]. However, many fruits and vegetables also contain methanol. In fact, there is more methanol in a glass of tomato juice than in a diet drink. The body treats methanol the same whether it comes from fruit or from aspartame.

All nonnutritive sweeteners—such as aspartame—must undergo rigorous testing and must be judged safe for the public to consume before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves them for marketing.

Furthermore, the FDA determines an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for many food additives, including nonnutritive sweeteners. The ADI represents an intake level that is considered very safe even if maintained each day throughout a person’s lifetime.

In the case of aspartame, the ADI is 1/100th of the level that has been tested and shown to be safe. The ADI for a 50-pound child is 7 diet sodas or 32 packets of sweetener per day.

Editor’s note: In the June 7, 1999, issue of The Wall Street Journal, Marilyn Chase reported that since the FDA approved aspartame in 1981, it has received more than 7,000 consumer complaints about the product—the most common complaint being a headache. Controlled trials, however, were unable to make any link between aspartame use and headaches.

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