Curious about aspartame? You’re not alone. Conflicting information about low-and no-calorie sweeteners seems to be reaching new heights, so we’ve searched high and low for the facts. Here’s the lowdown on aspartame.
What is aspartame?
Aspartame is a type of low-calorie sweetener that consists of two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is used as an ingredient to replace sugar in reduced-calorie foods and beverages, and it is also found in tabletop sweetener packets. The most common tabletop sweetener brand in the U.S. that contains aspartame is Equal®.
How is aspartame different from sugar?
Both aspartame and sugar provide sweet taste and contain four calories per gram. However, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar and does not raise blood glucose like sugar does. Aspartame’s sweetness compared to sugar means that only a very small amount of aspartame is needed to provide the same level of sweetness as sugar—thus contributing very few calories per serving.
When we consume sugar (sucrose), our body breaks it down into glucose and fructose, uses what it needs, and stores the rest for future use. In contrast, when we consume aspartame, it gets broken down into aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which our bodies use in protein synthesis and metabolism. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are naturally found in several foods, including eggs and meats. Aspartame digestion also produces a small amount of methanol, a compound that is naturally found in foods like fruits and vegetables and their juices.
Is aspartame safe?
Yes, aspartame is safe to consume. It’s one of eight low- and no-calorie sweeteners permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the U.S. food supply. Aspartame was approved for use by the FDA in 1981.
In addition to the FDA, leading global health authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) have concluded that aspartame is safe for human consumption. Aspartame safety has also been confirmed by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare; Food Standards Australia New Zealand; and Health Canada. Based on the conclusions of global scientific authorities, aspartame is currently permitted for use in more than 100 countries.
Although the safety of aspartame is well-established, aspartame intake should be limited by people with phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a rare genetic disease that interferes with the proper metabolism of phenylalanine, one of the amino acids in aspartame. Individuals with PKU need to avoid or restrict phenylalanine intake from all sources. All packaged foods and beverages in the U.S. that contain aspartame are required by the FDA to have a statement on the label informing consumers of phenylalanine’s presence.
Did you know?
Did you know that aspartame was discovered by accident? Aspartame was accidentally discovered by scientist James M. Schlatter in 1965. While researching an anti-ulcer drug, Schlatter licked his finger to get a better grip and noticed a sweet taste. The sweetness he tasted was aspartame.
Did you know that there is a purpose behind the different colors of common tabletop sweetener packets? For those in the know, differently colored packets make it easier to quickly identify and choose your preferred type of sweetener. You may be most familiar with the color of sugar packets: white packets contain table sugar, and brown packets contain raw sugar. But low- and no-calorie sweetener packets have a consistent color code as well: Blue packets contain aspartame, pink packets contain saccharin, green packets contain stevia sweeteners, and yellow packets contain sucralose.
What’s the bottom line on aspartame?
A healthy eating pattern emphasizes mindfulness about portion sizes and the consumption of a variety of foods and beverages. Aspartame is not required in a healthy eating pattern, but it’s a safe option for those looking to reduce their consumption of calories from added sugars without having to sacrifice sweetness.
Still curious about aspartame? Check out more of our aspartame resources here.