People suffering from obesity and diabetes have a tendency to replace sugar in their diet with artificial sweeteners. This has led to a soaring of consumption levels of aspartame among diabetics and weight watchers worldwide. Aspartame is the most widely used artificial sweetener sold under the brands ‘Nutra Sweet’ and ‘Equal’.
To get a perspective on the pros and cons of aspartame, it is important to understand more about it. Aspartame is made up of two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartic acid is produced by the body while phenylalanine is derived from food. When the body processes aspartame, it breaks down a part of it into methanol.
The ill effects of methanol
Aspartame is the largest source of methanol. It is also produced through fruits and vegetables but such methanol is not considered harmful due to the obvious health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Free methanol is also created when heating aspartame particularly when it is added to hot food or beverages.
When consumed in large quantities, methanol can be toxic. Worse still, it breaks down into formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. Moreover, even smaller quantities of methanol when combined with free methanol from food sources, increases its absorption rate and can compound its risks.
Aspartame is best avoided by people suffering from certain medical conditions
People suffering from phenylketonuria have too much unprocessed phenylalanine in their blood from protein sources, and aspartame can be very toxic for them. Also, patients of schizophrenia are often found to suffer from Tardive dyskinesia which is a side effect of the medication prescribed for schizophrenia. Consumption of aspartame in their case can lead to uncontrolled muscle movements.
As for diabetics, artificial sweeteners may be beneficial but that does not necessarily mean aspartame. It is important to seek a doctor’s advice on the kind of sweetener best suited to each case instead of consuming any non-caloric sweetener.
If you’re a non-diabetic, you could use natural alternatives like honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, and stevia leaves, among others, instead of aspartame. However, consume them in moderation as they too come with calories.
Inconclusive results have led to approval of aspartame as a substitute for sugar
Numerous studies have shown the risks associated with aspartame, including a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. The results may be inconclusive, but amid the controversy, ongoing research has linked aspartame to many ailments including – cancer, seizures, ADHD, depression, headaches, Alzheimer’s, and even multiple sclerosis.
However, despite the widespread criticism of its consumption, aspartame has been approved by the USFDA, United Nations FAO, WHO and the American Heart Association. In fact, it is certified as a GRAS product (generally regarded as safe).
The USFDA and the EFDA have established the acceptable daily intake of aspartame at 50mg and 40mg per kg of body weight respectively. But even this is on the higher side. This does little to reduce the controversy surrounding its consumption.
From a nutritionist’s point of view, I advise my clients to consume sugar, artificial sweeteners or even aspartame for that matter, in moderation. Recent global trends show an increasing number of people steering away from artificial sweeteners altogether, along with other packaged foods. As for me, I would avoid consuming anything synthetic, or chemically altered — one that is stripped of any nutritional value.