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Aspartame is a sugar substitute used in baked goods including cookie recipes and in soft drinks and other beverages. The low-calorie sweetener is sold under several different brand names with Equal and NutraSweet being the most well known. It can currently be found in over a hundred countries and in thousands of products on the supermarket shelf.

The white odorless powder was discovered in 1965 by chemist James Schlatter and tastes like sugar but is actually 200 times sweeter. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the product for use in 1981. Before approval however the product went through a lengthy waiting period and many safety tests. Though the product has been controversial from the start, the FDA stance continues to be that for the majority of people, the product is safe to eat, drink and even use in a chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Composition

The composition of aspartame is as follows:

  • Phenylalanine: This essential amino acid found in the sweetener usually breaks down in the body. However, for those suffering from a rare genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, the phenylalanie in aspartane could lead to brain damage. Because of this, any product containing aspartame is required to carry a label that says it contains the amino acid.
  • Aspartic acid: Like phenylalanine, this amino acid can break down in the human body. Since it is in free form (unbinded from protein), there is concern among some in the scientific community that its use may cause damage to nerve and brain cells.
  • Methanol: When entering the small intestines methanol or wood alcohol breaks down into formaldehyde. Methanol is a toxic substance but is present in many fruits and vegetables and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Both of these substances are also naturally produced in the human body.
  • Diketopiperazine: As aspartame sits in products it breaks down and aspartylphenylalanine diketopiperazine forms. This is a specific type of diketopiperazine and there seems to be a relation between diketopiperazine and brain tumors.

Negative Side Effects

From its beginning their has been much hearsay and Internet rumors circulating about potential negative effects of aspartame. Individuals have reported neurological affects including headaches, dizziness and mood swings. Worries over its possible side effects delayed aspartame from being sold in the 1970s. Serious complaints have even linked the product to Alzheimer's, epilepsy and weight gain. Diabetics have also had concerns over aspartame, but the American Diabetes Association has stated that the product does not raise blood sugar levels and safe to consume.

Aspartame Studies and Articles

  • Aspartame and Cancer: This aspartame fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute describes if there is a link between the substance and cancer.