E951

Aspartame

  • Our verdict: 4 - we recommend avoiding
  • Latest update & fact check: 27.6.2024 - Rebecca Taylor, CNP
  • Origin: It is produced synthetically and does not come from natural sources.

Aspartame is an artificial, non‑carbohydrate sweetener used as a sugar substitute in various processed foods and beverages. It is approximately 180‑200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) and is known for its ability to provide a sweet taste without being high in calories.

It is usually produced by combining aspartic acid and phenylalanine through a series of chemical reactions that combine these amino acids into a specific structure.

Characteristics and uses in the food industry

Aspartame is widely used in the food industry due to several key properties:

  • High sweetness: 200 times sweeter than sugar, allowing smaller amounts to be used to achieve the desired sweetness.
  • Low calorie: It provides minimal calories compared to sugar, which helps in reducing calories for weight management.
  • Dry Stability: Stable in dry conditions, making it suitable for use in dry foods and powdered beverages.
  • Compatibility: It can be used in combination with other sweeteners to increase the sweetness profile.
  • Flavor profile: Mimics the taste of sugar without the bitter aftertaste associated with some other artificial sweeteners.

Use in ultra‑processed foods

Aspartame is widely used in ultra‑processed foods due to its ability to artificially increase sweetness without added calories. It is mainly used for:

  • Calorie reduction.
  • Increasing sweetness: allows manufacturers to sweeten foods while maintaining a low calorie profile. Aspartame is also used to mask unpleasant flavours that consumers would not normally enjoy.
  • Long‑lasting flavor: Commonly used in chewing gum and breath fresheners because it provides a long‑lasting sweetness.
  • Influencing dietary habits: Products containing aspartame are often marketed as healthier alternatives, appealing to health‑conscious and weight‑managing consumers.

Impact on human health

Although aspartame is approved by many health authorities, including the FDA, EFSA and WHO, and is generally considered safe for consumption, there are some health concerns and potential risks associated with its use:

  • Phenylketonuria (PKU): Persons with PKU, a rare genetic disorder, cannot effectively metabolize phenylalanine. Because aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, products containing aspartame must carry a warning label for those affected by PKU.
  • Methanol production: Metabolism of aspartame produces methanol, which can be toxic in large quantities. However, the amounts produced when aspartame is consumed are generally considered safe.
  • Neurological and behavioural disorders: Some studies have suggested a possible link with headaches, depression and seizures.
  • Possible carcinogen: Some studies have suggested a link between aspartame and an increased risk of certain cancers. However, more research is needed.
  • Digestive problems: Some individuals may experience mild digestive problems such as bloating or gas when consuming products containing aspartame.
  • Hormonal problems: Studies suggest that aspartame may impair normal ovarian function and disrupt the balance of reproductive hormones by interfering with the body's hormonal system.
  • Concerns about overconsumption: Because many products contain aspartame, children and adults may inadvertently consume more than the FDA recommended amount, which can lead to serious health complications.

Sources

  1. Magnuson, B. A., Burdock, G. A., Doull, J., Kroes, R. M., Marsh, G. M., Pariza, M. W.,... & Williams, G. M. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 37(8), 629‑727.
  2. European Food Safety Authority. (2013). Scientific Opinion on the re‑evaluation of aspartame (E 951) as a food additive. EFSA Journal, 11(12), 3496.
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2018). Additional Information about High‑Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States. FDA Website.
  4. Butchko, H. H., Stargel, W. W., Comer, C. P., Mayhew, D. A., Benninger, C., Blackburn, G. L.,... & Tschanz, C. (2002). Aspartame: a review of safety. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 35(2), S1‑S93.
  5. World Health Organization. (2016). Aspartame: A safety evaluation. WHO Website.
  6. Guo, S., Yu, M., Ma, J., He, S., Li, Y., & Duan, X. (2023). Impacts of environmental endocrine‑disrupting chemicals on human reproductive health: Mechanisms and strategies for intervention. Environmental Pollution, 316, 120678. https://doi.org/10,1016/j.envpol.2022,120678
  7. Marangoni, F., Mazzolani, B.. C., Vitale, S., & Colombo, C. (2021). Aspartame‑True or False? A Narrative Review of Safety Analysis of General Use in Products. Nutrients, 13(6), 1957. https://doi.org/10,3390/nu13061957