Be careful what you read. Is the artificial sweetener aspartame safe or not?

At regular intervals, aspartame is presented as toxic in the popular media. The sugar substitute would cause diseases like cancer and dementia.

Because of its great sweetening power and the low number of calories, aspartame is mainly used in light soft drinks. The artificial sweetener has already been approved for consumption for a long time.

Since the 1980s, there have been regular reports in the media about possible adverse effects of aspartame. Five years ago it was just too much for the European Commission and a new investigation was carried out. This is a study by the EFSA, the highest authority in the field of food safety. That study focused on the substance phenylalanine. That is a substance that occurs when the body processes aspartame.

Phenylalanine can be toxic to the human body at high doses. In the study it was investigated whether a major daily use of aspartame can lead to an excess of this substance in the blood. This was not the case, even at daily doses of 40 mg aspartame per kilogram of body weight, which amounts to 15 to 20 cans of soft drinks, on top of the normal supply via the diet.

The waves of the internet

Those looking for information about the safety of aspartame themselves can take two paths:

  • the most popular path leaves at Google from which you can surf further on the fickle waves of the internet. 
  • you can also be more selective and seek information in freely accessible scientific databases.

We start at Google. If you type 'aspartame/side effects', you get 2890 hits (in my own language). Of the first ten, six have overblown titles such as "The danger of aspartame", "Own experiences of victims of aspartame" or "Warriors For Health". This can't be good.

In the texts it sounds like aspartame is the most dangerous dietary supplement on the market. In another piece, aspartame appears to be a deadly poison. Conspiracy theories are also never far away. "Shortly after Ronald Reagan took office, an application was approved by the new director of the Food and Drug Administration, a friend of Rumsfeld and Reagan," you read in one of the texts.

The style of the articles and the choice of words used in it do not really inspire confidence. Certainly not if there is advertising at the bottom of the page that promotes an alternative in the form of a super healthy green juice...

You can better follow the scientific path. A first option is the so-called CRD database of the University of York. This contains references and comments on tens of thousands of review papers, including those of the Cochrane Collaboration. Their mission:

Our mission is to promote evidence-informed health decision-making by producing high-quality, relevant, accessible systematic reviews and other synthesized research evidence. Our work is internationally recognized as the benchmark for high-quality information about the effectiveness of health care.

Another possibility is PubMed, a database with more than 20 million scientific articles that is updated daily. They are grouped and ordered according to the subject and nature of publication in order to be able to search them more easily.

With the search terms 'Aspartame/adverse effects' you will find 430 reviews of which a lot were published after the year 2000. The three best matches are useful for answering our question whether aspartame is harmful to humans. All three come to the same conclusion, namely that aspartame is completely safe for use by healthy people.

Of course this list is not finite. A big advantage of the rise of the internet is that scientific studies have become much more accessible.

Long live light soft drinks?

Of course not. The reality is this: of course drinking water is the safest bet, but there is currently no evidence that artificial sweeteners in soft drinks have a real negative impact on your health, in the sense that they would cause something that is life-threatening.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of specialists consider light soda as a blessing, because they are indeed a weapon in the fight against obesity and diabetes. Sugar-rich drinks (not just cola and lemonades but also mainly alcohol) are one of the main reasons why we in the Western world are faced with an epidemic of obesity and the resulting diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. 

If diet soft drinks are preferable to the particularly unhealthy regular soft drinks, then that is a step forward. Of course, we are not there yet. That is why clear information is crucial. Misinforming people just so you could sell your own products is therefore a despicable practice.

The interpretation of the media is also reckless in this case: it only leads to the fact that it is more and more difficult for the public to distinguish facts from myths and that the reaction becomes one of dangerous resignation: "they do not know what is healthy and unhealthy. So, we don’t care and eat and drink what our heart desires."

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