Aspartame, long used to sweeten foods and drinks of Americans, got a recent thumbs up from across the pond. The artificial sweetener was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States in 1981, and it's one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners - but its approval hasn't stopped people from being skeptical of aspartame and its possible health consequences.
Aspartame was one of those modern marvels in that it was so much sweeter than sugar - 200 times sweeter, in fact - that much less of it could be used in place of sugar to give foods sweetness, hence its use as a way to get a sweet-tasting soda for zero calories. Sweeteners like aspartame are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and even though they must be tested for safety and approved before they can be used, skeptics remain.
I was never one of them. As I've grown up and had kids of my own, I've grown healthier as a person. I make better food choices than I did in my youth, and I certainly have cut out lots of unhealthy junk food I used to enjoy. But the one thing I've never been able to give up is pop - or soda, if you prefer. I switched from the real thing over to diet years ago, and in that time cut way down on my soda consumption. I went from maybe a couple of drinks a day to now one or two a week. I can buy the beverage in bulk at our wholesale club, and it will last months. Even as I got healthier and started adding chia seeds and kale and Greek yogurt into my diet, I was never very concerned about the artificial sweetener in my drink of choice.
My thinking was that the FDA sets an acceptable daily intake for each sweetener, which is the maximum amount that is safe to consume each day. To get to that level of aspartame consumption, an adult would have to drink about 21 cans of diet soda to go over that level, according to the American Cancer Society. That's not exactly something I'd be in danger of doing, ever.
But then there are studies that show diet soda drinkers were more likely to gain weight - the opposite of the intended effect, really. Other widely read misinformation pointed fingers at artificial sweeteners for all kinds of diseases in the '90s. But aspartame has been tested a number of times, and each test has deemed it safe for consumption. Now, the European Food Safety Authority has completed a full risk assessment of the sweetener and deemed it safe at current levels of exposure. The EFSA reviewed both animal and human studies and ruled out a potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer. It also wasn't found to harm the brain, nervous system or affect behavior or cognitive function in adults. Pregnant women can breathe easier, too. There was no risk to the developing fetus, aside from women suffering from PKU, which causes the phenylalanine to build up in the body; phenylalanine is a component of aspartame. Further, the breakdown products of aspartame are also naturally present in other foods.
So should you take this as a sign that aspartame is good for you, so drink more of it? Not so fast. You should still be drinking more water and eating foods that are fresh and naturally sweet, like fruits and vegetables. But this study should reassure the regular diet soda drinkers that any serious health issues down the road won't be related to their favorite aspartame-sweetened beverage.
For me, I still try to keep my artificial sweetener use to a minimum. My philosophy has always been all good things in moderation, and my diet soda certainly falls under "moderate" use. But this study certainly helps me feel a little less guilty about my favorite guilty pleasure.
-By Erin Whitehead
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