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Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is commonly used in many diet products in order to provide the taste of sugar without the calories.  It is known as NutraSweet, Equal, and E951, to name a few.  However, there has been some controversy surrounding aspartame’s safety, so we’ve looked into it in order to find the truth.

Basic Facts about Aspartame

Aspartame was invented in 1965 and it is a sweetening ingredient that is low in calories, and is thus a substitute for sugar.  This allows people to enjoy the sweet taste of sugar but in a healthier way.  It was approved by the American Food and Drug Administration in 1981 and it is made from two amino acids – phenylalanine and aspartic acid.  Aspartame is contained in thousands of products worldwide, but some common products include:

  • beverages
  • dairy products
  • confectionery
  • frozen desserts
  • tabletop sweeteners
  • powdered products
  • cereals
  • preserves
  • pharmaceuticals

The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of aspartame is 40mg per kilogram of bodyweight.  The ADI is a figure that you can eat or drink daily over your lifetime without experiencing any adverse effects.  A person that weighs 70kg would have to drink more than 5 litres of soft drinks sweetened only with aspartame in one day to consume the ADI of aspartame.  Surveys and studies have shown that even the most frequent adult consumers of aspartame only get about 4 to 7 percent of the ADI.  The most frequent child consumers get up to 16 percent of the ADI of aspartame.

Aspartame and your Health

Many studies have shown that aspartame actually has few side effects.  There are no scientific studies that have proven that aspartame does not cause or contribute to allergic reactions, headaches, cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.  Nor does it affect vision, cause mood or behavioural changes, or interfere with thought processes.  It is interesting to note that some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame in diet drinks can actually stimulate your appetite and cause you to eat when you’re not hungry, thus defeating the purpose of diet drinks.  Aspartame is still widely thought to be a useful weight management tool by many experts, however, if it is used as part of a well designed weight management program.

Products that contain aspartame have a warning on it that alerts people to the natural amino acid phenylalanine.  This amino acid is not dangerous to most people but it is toxic to people that suffer from the rare disease, phenylketonuria.  People that suffer from phenylketonuria cannot break down the phenylalanine and it can rise to toxic levels and cause brain damage.

People are also concerned about the amount of methanol that is released into the body by the metabolisation of aspartame.  However, the methanol that is produced by the metabolisation is the same as the methanol that comes from fruits and vegetables.  As an example, one glass of tomato juice produces 6 times the methanol that a similar sized glass of diet soda would provide.  The methanol does not accumulate in the body.

Aspartame is considered to be safe to use during pregnancy, by nursing women and by children.

The Negative Side of Aspartame

Despite numerous studies attesting to the fact that aspartame is safe to use, there are still many health experts that believe that aspartame has a negative effective on our health.  In fact, over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives that have been reported to America’s FDA have been due to aspartame.  Some of the symptoms documented by the FDA include headaches or migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, fatigue, irritability, tachycardia, vision problems, hearing loss, memory loss, breathing difficulties, and anxiety attacks.  Some researchers and doctors also believe that chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and fibromyalgia, can be triggered or worsened by consuming aspartame.

Aspartic acid makes up approximately 40 percent of aspartame, and it is an amino acid that, when taken in its free form, significantly raises the blood plasma level of aspartate and glutamate.  The excess aspartate and glutamate leads to a high level of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Too much aspartate or glutamate kills certain neurons by allowing too much calcium into the cells, the influx triggering free radicals which also kill the cells.  Some diseases linked to the damage caused by this cell death include hearing loss, dementia, memory loss, hormonal problems, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.  Acute reactions to the excess aspartate and glutamate include headaches, nausea, fatigue, sleep problems, and vision problems.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is naturally found in the brain and people with phenylketonuria, as previously mentioned, cannot metabolise phenylalanine and thus cannot consume aspartame.  However, studies have shown that consuming aspartame can lead to high levels of phenylalanine in the brain even in people that do not suffer from phenylketonuria.  Too much phenylalanine in the brain can cause the levels of serotonin to decrease, leading to emotional disorders such as depression.

Methanol is also considered as being dangerous.  It is gradually released into the small intestine when the methyl group of aspartame encounters an enzyme called chymotrypsin.  The absorption of methanol into the body occurs quickly when aspartame is heated to over 30 degrees Celsius – heating that can easily occur when the product is stored incorrectly or is heated before consumption, such as in sugar substitutes in coffee.  In the body, methanol breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is a neurotoxin.  Symptoms of methanol poisoning include headaches, buzzing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal problems, and memory lapses.  One of the most well known symptoms of methanol poisoning is vision problems.  Fruit juices and alcohol do contain small amounts of methanol but the methanol is never present alone in natural products.  It is accompanied by ethanol which is an antidote for methanol toxicity in humans.


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