Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981. Marketed under the brand names NutraSweet® and Equal®, aspartame now sweetens over 6,000 food and beverage products, ranging from diet soft drinks to low-calorie yoghurt, jams, desserts, juices, chewing gum and sugar-free condiments. Aspartame has been the subject of considerable scientific study, and should be avoided by those with the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU).
Diet and Low-Calorie Beverages
Shortly after aspartame received approval as a tabletop sweetener and dry food additive in 1981, it received FDA approval in 1983 as an additive for carbonated beverages. Since the early 1980s, major brands of carbonated beverages such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi have been sweetened with aspartame. In addition to sweetening carbonated soft drinks, aspartame is an ingredient in a wide variety of diet and low-calorie beverages including: flavoured waters, fruit and vegetable juices, drinkable yoghurt, iced teas and powdered nutritional drinks. In order to determine if a product contains aspartame, check the ingredient label, as food and beverage manufacturers are required to list aspartame as an ingredient.
Sugar-free Foods and Desserts
While soft drinks account for more than 70 per cent of the products that contain aspartame, there is a surprising variety of foods that contain the sweetener, including: sugar-free cereals, yoghurt, pudding, jams and jellies, ice cream, desserts and nutritional bars. Aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than traditional table sugar, so relatively small amounts can provide the sweetness without additional calories that many consumers desire. A tabletop version of aspartame can also be used to sweeten baked goods; however, the Aspartame Information Center cautions that, "In some recipes requiring lengthy heating or baking, a loss of sweetness may occur." To avoid a loss of flavour, consumers may choose to use products specifically designed for baking with aspartame.
Gum, Candies and Pharmaceuticals
Aspartame is found in many brands of sugar-free gum, breath mints, candies and condiments. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), only sugar-free gums receive the ADA's seal of safety and effectiveness, because, "They are sweetened by non-cavity causing sweeteners such as aspartame, sorbitol or mannitol." Aspartame also flavours some brands of pharmaceuticals, such as cough drops, antacids, laxatives, vitamins and children's medicines.
PKU and Scientific Studies
For those with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), aspartame should only be consumed according to a careful diet plan. PKU inhibits the body's ability to metabolise the amino acid phenylalanine, and so individuals with the condition must adhere to a phenylalanine-restricted diet. Because phenylalanine is released when aspartame is digested, all products containing aspartame must include the following label: "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine."
Since receiving FDA approval, aspartame has been the focus of intense scientific and media scrutiny, and has been tested in over 200 research studies. In 2007, after reviewing numerous studies on the potential link between aspartame and some cancers, the FDA released this statement, "FDA finds no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a general purpose sweetener in food."