Is aspartame really as bad as they say?

Your question is a good one. I work with patients undergoing treatment for cancer, so I have been asked this many times over the years. There is a lot of information about artificial sweeteners in the media and on the internet, some helpful and some…not so much. Let’s start by reviewing aspartame itself. Aspartame (or brand names NutraSweet and Equal) is an artificial sweetener that is ~200 times sweeter than sugar. It can be added to various products in very small amounts, which helps reduce the total calories in beverages and food. Aspartame is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); they have set measure for what is considered safe intake of this product, or acceptable daily intake (ADI). A quote from the American Cancer Society (ACS): “To put the ADI for aspartame in perspective, this would be 3,750 milligrams per day for a typical adult weighing 75 kilograms (about 165 pounds), far more than most adults take in daily. A 12 ounce can of diet soda usually contains about 192 milligrams of aspartame and a packet of the tabletop sweetener contains about 35mg. An adult weighing 165 pounds would have to drink more than 19 cans of diet soda a day or consume more than 107 packets to go over the recommended level.” I don’t know anyone consuming nineteen cans of diet soda a day. But, if someone is, I would urge them to see their doctor and then meet with a registered dietitian to help them make healthy changes to their diet.

The word “cancer” can be scary. Generally, if we read that any food or beverage may cause cancer, alarm bells go off in our head and we then want to stay as far away from the product as possible. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and ACS have reviewed thousands of studies dealing with aspartame and its possible cancer-causing effect. The studies have been both laboratory studies (using animals) and human studies. Researchers from the NCI analyzed results from one of the largest human studies. The researchers reviewed diets of 150,000 people and found that that people who did drink products containing aspartame did not have an increased risk of lymphomas, leukemia(s), or brain tumors. Finally, the FDA released a statement, “considering results from the large number of studies on aspartame’s safety, including five previously conducted negative chronic carcinogenicity studies, a recently reported large epidemiology study with negative associations between the use of aspartame and the occurrence of tumors, and negative findings from a series of three transgenic mouse assays, FDA finds no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food.”

I want to mention that consumption of aspartame can sometimes be dangerous, and in some cases I urge my patients to avoid it. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a genetic disorder and those that have it cannot break down the amino acid phenylalanine. In the body, aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine. Patients with PKU need to avoid aspartame; their bodies cannot break it down and it can build up in the blood, thereby preventing the brain from absorbing important nutrients.

As a practicing certified specialist in oncology nutrition, I am continually reviewing latest evidenced- based practice. I encourage my patients to consume all foods and beverages in moderation. I suggest that they choose beverages that are calorie free, with water being my number one suggestion. Generally I recommend that my patients choose foods that are more natural and less artificial. However, if I am counseling an overweight patient with a real sweet tooth, there may be instances where foods artificially sweetened (lower in sugar and calories) may help them healthfully lose weight; thereby reducing incidence of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

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