While it had its heyday in the 1980s, when it first appeared in the food industry, this synthetic sweetener has been criticized for several years, accused of being bad for your health. In what foods is aspartame found? What are its effects on health and weight? The answers from Raphaël Gruman, dietitian and nutritionist in Paris.
Definition and code: what is aspartame or E951?
Also known under the code E951, aspartame is an artificial sweetener first synthesized in 1965. Its first marketing authorization was granted in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974.
This sweetener is composed of two amino acids, L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine, forming a dipeptide. Its sweetening power is approximately 150 to 200 times higher than that of traditional sugar.
This food additive is referenced in the European Union by the code E 951. The first digit of the code, 9, indicates that it is a sweetener.
Aspartame is widely used in low-sugar or no-added-sugar foods and beverages.
Food: Where is aspartame found?
Aspartame is widely present in a variety of food and beverage products, often labeled as “light” or “reduced.” Among the commonly consumed products, we can cite:
- Non-alcoholic drinks, in particular “light” or “no added sugar” sodas
- Prepared meals with low sugar content
- Meal replacements, intended for diets
- Low-fat desserts and ice creams
- Dairy products, such as certain yogurts and fresh cheeses
- Sugar-free confectionery and chewing gum
- Cough drops.
It is also used as a table sweetener and in certain medicines. It is important to check product labels to determine their aspartame content, as it is mandatory to mention it on packaging in Europe.
What drinks with aspartame?
The main drinks that contain aspartame are diet sodas. Coca Zero®, Coca Light®, Shweppes Zéro®, Fanta Zéro®, Orangina Light®, Pepsi Max®, Sprite Zéro®… these non-alcoholic carbonated drinks almost all contain aspartame, at a rate of 200 to 300 mg per 33 cl can.
Is there any in chewing gum?
A number of brands of sugar-free chewing gum use aspartame as a sweetening agent. This includes Hollywood®, Mentos®, Freedent® and Airwaves®.
Is aspartame good or dangerous for your health?
Although in 2002 the scientific committee of the European Commission confirmed its opinion on the safety of aspartame, the subject is not closed. The effect of aspartame on health has continued to raise many questions and be the subject of study. The question of its dangerousness depends on several factors such as the dose consumed, the duration of exposure and individual susceptibility.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the French Food Safety Authority (ANSES) have finally come to the conclusion that aspartame is safe for human consumption at acceptable daily doses, i.e. say 40mg/kg of body weight per day.
Cancer: is aspartame carcinogenic?
The relationship between aspartame and cancer has been the subject of much research. According to the results, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), aspartame has been classified since July 2023 as “possibly carcinogenic” (Group 2B), in In particular, for hepatocellular carcinoma, which is a type of liver cancer.
At European level, the maximum authorized doses of aspartame are 1,000 mg/kg for milk-based preparations and derived products and 600 mg/L for drinks. The ADI is the amount of a substance that a person can consume daily throughout their life without appreciable risk to health.
The acceptable daily intake (ADI), which can be consumed every day of your life, is 40 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. For example, a 60 kilo woman can consume up to 2.4 g of aspartame per day, and an 80 kilo man up to 3.2 g. This allowable intake is very high, since an adult weighing 70 kg would have to consume more than 9 cans per day to exceed it, assuming that they are the only dietary source of aspartame consumed.
Diabetes: does aspartame act on insulin?
The effect of aspartame on the release of insulin – the hypoglycemic hormone – is a critical question, especially for people with diabetes.
Since aspartame is not actually a carbohydrate, one might imagine that it has no effect on insulin release. But in practice it’s not that simple! “Eating aspartame with its powerful sweet taste tricks the brain into thinking you are eating real sugar and triggers a release of insulin.” explains Raphaël Gruman. Problem: insulin causes a drop in carbohydrates in the blood and therefore mini-hypoglycemia. “The key is a desire for sugar to compensate. Aspartame therefore induces the body to consume sugar and can promote weight gain” summarizes the nutritionist.
This is also why aspartame is not a solution for diabetic patients.
Sugar or aspartame?
Due to its effect on blood sugar and the fact that it maintains the need for sweet taste, aspartame is not a product to be recommended as part of weight loss or a diabetic diet. “I do not recommend aspartame to my patients, and always tell them that I prefer one can of red Coke to two of Coke Zero! In other words, I advise them to learn to reduce their consumption of real sugar rather than systematically replacing it with aspartame” insists Raphaël Gruman.
Aspartame ou saccharine ?
Just like aspartame, saccharin is a so-called intense artificial sweetener which comes in the form of a white powder, commonly used in the food industry. Its sweetening power is even higher than that of aspartame since it is 300 times to 400 times stronger than that of table sugar, compared to 200 times for aspartame.
“Concerning its effects on health, weight and blood sugar, it is essentially the same as that of aspartame: it’s bonnet-blanc, blanc-bonnet” indicates the nutritionist.
Aspartame or stevia?
Widely touted as a natural sweetener because it comes from a South American plant, stevia sweetener is actually much less natural than it seems. Powdered stevia, used in the food industry, is refined and chemically altered to remove its bitter aftertaste. It even undergoes almost 10 times more chemical treatment than aspartame. “Here again, it is difficult to decide in favor of one or the other.” indicates Raphaël Gruman, for whom the best option is definitely to reduce one’s appetite for sweet taste and keep real sugar.