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Is the Low Calorie Sweetener Aspartame Safe?
In the fight against obesity, the energy content of beverages, as well as other sugar-containing foods, should be considered, particularly for people who are trying to control or reduce their energy intake.
Safety of low calorie sweeteners
Low calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, provide a sweet taste with the benefit of little or no calories. Although the sweeteners currently in foods available in the UK have been approved as safe and have been the subject of extensive scientific research, consumers remain confused about their role in the diet and concerned about their safety.
In fact, all low calorie sweeteners used in food and drinks sold in the EU have to undergo rigorous safety testing before being approved. Food ingredient manufacturers have to provide evidence from safety studies showing that the sweetener in question does not cause any adverse effects including cancer, that it does not affect reproduction, that it is not stored within the body or metabolised into other potentially unsafe products, and that it does not cause allergic reactions.
EFSA’s re-evaluation of aspartame
At the end of last year, following a request from the European Commission to re-evaluate the safety of aspartame, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific opinion, which reconfirmed its safety at the current Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40mg/kg bodyweight/day. ADI is the estimated amount per kilogram of body weight that a person can consume, on average, every day over a lifetime without risk.
Following an extensive assessment of evidence, the Authority concluded that at current levels of exposure, aspartame and its breakdown products pose no toxicity concern for the general adult and child population, and consumer exposure is below the ADI. The exception is for people who suffer from the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), who must avoid aspartame. Although current intakes were not measured in the re-evaluation, an adult would have to consume around 14 cans of a sugar-free drink containing maximum permitted levels of aspartame every day before reaching the ADI. In reality most drinks use aspartame in combination with other sweeteners so that the level is considerably lower than the maximum permitted levels and hence, an adult would have to drink 36 cans or more every day to meet the ADI.
So in the context of weight management advice, within a healthy balanced diet, we can reassure consumers that the current scientific evidence would not indicate avoidance of low calorie sweeteners. Compare this to the plethora of evidence on the adverse health effects of obesity.
Ayela Spiro, British Nutrition Foundation – QCS Expert Nutrition Contributor