Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in many sugar-free or diet food and beverage products, most famously in Diet Coke, which is also available with Splenda. This non-nutritive sugar substitute gets such a great deal of bad press and is the subject of a very intensive misinformation campaign. The myths about this non-nutritive sweetener are so ingrained that I doubt any amount of effort on my part would change many minds. Well, that’s okay. Why should I care whether you avoid aspartame? There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But wallowing in ignorance is an invitation to being easily victimized by crusaders or health-activists who are actually money-grabbers.
These food-alarmists are very quick to tell you what is poisoning you, while they are also telling you how, for a fee, they can fix you, or sell you approved products, at an elevated price, that will keep you healthy and safe. They will tell you how “they” are lying to us…while they lie to us. Do I care about aspartame and consider it a victim? Of course not. What I do care about is scare-mongers preying on our emotions and gullibility. To that end I have published a series of articles, starting with this one, about aspartame here on Culinary Lore which will cover some basic facts and background about the chemical as well as many of the frightening claims made about it. The next article in the series will be linked at the end of each, and each will be linked within when appropriate. Each article can be read as a standalone.
Here, I am going to cover some basic information including when and how aspartame was invented, how it is made, and its basic fate in the body.
When Was Aspartame Invented?
Aspartame was invented in 1965 by James Schlatter, who was a chemist for G.
D. Searle and Company, now a subsidiary of Pfizer. Schlatter was not trying to make a sweetener but was instead working on an ulcer drug. While working with aspartame, it is said he accidentally got some on his fingers and when he licked his fingers to pick up a piece of paper he noticed a very sweet taste. He figured the sweet taste may have been from the aspartame, so he tasted some and voilà, a highly successful and much-maligned sweetener was born.
Aspartame was reported as a sweetener in 1969 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. It is now distributed under several names, including Nutrasweet and Equal.
When Was Aspartame Approved for Use?
It was approved for use by the FDA in 1981.
How Does Aspartame Compare with the Sweetness of Sugar?
It’s about 200 times as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). However, it has a slightly bitter aftertaste.
How is Aspartame Produced?
Aspartame is produced by combining two common amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. I’d like to stress that these amino acids are COMMON. They are found in most of the protein foods we eat. The phenylalanine in aspartame is modified by the addition of a methyl group. Its chemical name is N-(L-α-Aspartyl)-L-phenylalanine, 1-methyl ester. You may read, from one source or another, that there are other things that the makers “sneak in” and that these add to the danger of aspartame, but these accusations are difficult to confirm. When I confronted an anti-aspartame zealot about their proof of these accusations, the response I got was the typical “prove there is not anything else in it.” The burden of proof is on the person making the accusation and although it is usually close to impossible to prove a negative, in this case all he has to do is send off a sample to an independent lab, out of pocket, and wait for the results. I won’t hold my breath.
Can Aspartame be Absorbed Into the Bloodstream?
No. It must be broken down into its constituent components. The primary breakdown products are the two aminos it is made from, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Some free methanol is also released. More on methanol is covered in a later article.
What is the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of Aspartame?
According to the FDA the ADI for aspartame is 50mgs per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh about 75kgs, that would take about 20 cans of diet soda. If you drink that much, you’ve got a diet soda habit, for sure. See more on the ADI for Aspartame in the third article.
See next article in series: Why is There a Warning About Phenylketonurics on Diet Soda Labels?