They say that the food you eat can either be a powerful medicine or a slow poison. Hence, one must double-check what he or she is eating, drinking, or adding to their food. There are some sweeteners, additives, and flavors that have a dubious profile, and yet they are immensely popular in masses! In this discussion, we talk about one such artificial sweetener aspartame, which you might be familiar with by the names like NutraSweet and Equal. But there are more serious aspects of aspartame to talk about than the trade names it goes by. Is it safe for consumption? Is it better than sucrose? Will it elevate the risk of diseases like diabetes? If you are interested in finding the right answers to this question, stay hooked till the very end of this discussion!
What is aspartame?
Let us start with the basics, and identify the chemical nature of aspartame. Well, it is a methyl ester of two compounds, namely aspartic acid and phenylalanine dipeptide [I]. Both of these compounds are amino acids by nature, the former is a non-essential amino acid while the latter is an essential amino acid. When consumed, aspartame breaks down into methanol [II]. Now, if you are looking for a historical angle, you will be amazed to know that aspartame discovery dates back to 1965. However, it was not until 1981 that the compound got the nod of approval from the FDA [III].
It features regularly in these products!
Have you decoded the myth of sugar-free products yet? If not, let us tell you that such products normally come with an artificial sweetener added. Now, just to be clear, aspartame is the only artificial sweetener available in the market. There are several dodgy sweeteners, which people have become addicted to without knowing in the last few years or so. Coming back to aspartame, some of the products it normally features include diet soda, yogurt, sugar-free ice creams, and candies. Interestingly, some brands use deceptive packaging techniques and label the sweetener as phenylalanine instead of aspartame. Astute but deceiving!
Recalling the good old sucrose!
But wait a minute. Who is aspartame’s key adversary? Why the thing was even invented in the first place? And the answer is sucrose. A naturally occurring disaccharide that consists of glucose and fructose, sucrose must be broken down into its units for proper consumption. The enzyme needed for sucrose breakdown is called sucrose, which is produced by the small intestine [IV]. But we doubt you are interested in chemistry. No, we know you are after the advantages and disadvantages of sucrose! Well, we have spilled the beans in the next section, do check them out!
Sucrose beneficial or unbeneficial?
It provides energy. That is probably about it, to be very honest with you. Of course, there is the fact that sucrose is natural sugar, it is found in fruits and vegetables abundantly. However, these pros are not enough to outweigh the cons that are too much. Not only does sucrose consumption contribute to your weight gain, but it can also put your cardiovascular health at risk. However, the most significant downside has to be the fact that you are at a much greater risk of type 2 diabetes [V] if you are not careful about your sucrose consumption. One becomes more prone to obesity and insulin resistance if sugar consumption is not kept in check.
Aspartame vs. sucrose: The comparison
We know you are mighty confused at this point in the discussion! Which one should you go for? Sugar or something that replaces sugar but is still not safe? You see, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than natural sugar, a fact that is vetted by the American Cancer Society [VI]. On the other hand, it has about the same number of calories as natural sugar i.e. 4 calories per gram [VII]. This side of things sure sounds tempting, right? More sweetness in the same amount of calories! But wait before you rush out to but the sachets of this artificial sweetener. We have to say something important in the next section!
Is aspartame really deadly?
It is not, relax. As we have mentioned earlier, the FDA has already approved this artificial sweetener decades ago. Many conspiracy theories have emerged in the last few years about Aspartame and are known by the sensational term The Aspartame Controversy. However, the FDA has been quashing these rumors. Not only the FDA, other organizations such as the World Health Organization, United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, and the European Food Safety Authority. EFSA has set the limits for aspartame consumption, which are around 40mg/kg of the bodyweight [VIII].
But you can’t rule out the risk!
However, there are a few people for whom aspartame remains forbidden fruit. For example, the people who suffer from Phenylketonuria must refrain from aspartame consumption. Why you must be wondering? Well, in the aforementioned condition, a patient has too much phenylalanine in their blood. Can you recall the chemical nature of aspartame? It has phenylalanine as well. So, you can understand why phenylketonuria patients should not indulge in aspartame consumption. But you can rest assured, aspartame does not cause cancer or multiple sclerosis. Rumors that don’t have scientific backing!
We could have fibbed for the sake of aspartame promotion that it promotes weight loss or helps a patient counter diabetes in a better way [IX]. Sure, other sweeteners do that but there is not much to build on concerning aspartame. However, one obvious benefit of switching to artificial sweeteners like aspartame is that it can slow down the tooth decay process that some of you might be suffering from. Overall, it is not deadly, it is not even contributing to a plethora of diseases, just a few that we have mentioned. But still, we are going to ask you to exercise caution when you use aspartame daily. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and sweetness is one weakness that you should stay away from anyway!