Scientific Panel Declares Aspartame Safe; Some Doubts Linger

After a comprehensive review of the research on aspartame (e.g., NutraSweet), which included more than 500 reports and studies, a panel of experts has concluded that the artificial sweetener is safe, all but dismissing earlier worries that it might cause cancer, neurological damage or other health problems. The 100-page report, published in the September Critical Reviews in Toxicology, also concludes there is no reason to think that consuming aspartame might cause weight gain, as some research has suggested.
   Does that now give you carte blanche to consume food and drinks sweetened with aspartame? Not entirely. Even after this seemingly comprehensive analysis of the research, some doubts remain.

Opposing View. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, the conclusions of the report are biased because it was sponsored by Ajinomoto, a major manufacturer of the sweetener. However, the identity of the sponsor was not disclosed to researchers until after the report was ready for publication. CSPI still classifies aspartame as an ingredient to avoid because it ?probably increases the risk of cancer.?

Lowdown on Aspartame Safety. Whether you trust the recent report or side with CSPI, here’s what you should know. Both in the U.S. and in Europe, most experts agree that consuming 40 to 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day is safe. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 2,700 to 3,400 milligrams of aspartame a day.
   The average intake of aspartame in the U.S. is 330 milligrams a day (a 12-ounce can of aspartame-sweetened soda contains about 180 milligrams). About 5% of the population takes in as much as 1,000 milligrams a day’still well within the estimated safety range.
   What about critics who point to methanol in aspartame that converts to toxic formaldehyde? It’s true the body converts methanol to formaldehyde as a normal byproduct of metabolism. And some methanol can convert when it’s still in the can, as it does when aspartame deteriorates or gets too hot. But the fact is, you can get more than 10 times as much methanol from a glass of fruit juice as you get from the same amount of aspartame-sweetened soda.

EN‘s Bottom Line. While the evidence seems pretty clear that small amounts of aspartame (two diet drinks a day) are harmless, it’s less clear what the effects of large intakes are. Moreover, there may be people who are susceptible to small doses (as a headache trigger, for example).
   Until research elucidates such effects, EN suggests limiting your intake of aspartame-sweetened diet drinks to two a day. Drinking that much or using NutraSweet in your morning coffee should have no ill effects. Or you could simply switch to sucralose (Splenda), which has generally gotten a clean bill of health.

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