Aspartame is a used as a sweetener, but thirty years after it hit the market it remains controversial. So can aspartame kill and what exactly is it?
What Exactly Is Aspartame?
To make aspartame you need to join together two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine.
If the idea of joining together amino acids sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, which get broken down during digestion.
During digestion aspartame also gets broken down back into aspartic acid and phenylalanine.
But unlike proteins, our body can’t use aspartame as a source of energy,
This is why manufacturers use aspartame in the ‘diet’ versions of their products. It adds a sweet flavor to food and drinks, but doesn’t contribute anything to the calorie count.
We consider aspartame to be a non-nutritive sweetener, because it has virtually no calorific value.
Can Aspartame Kill?
The short answer is no. We look into the claims about aspartame in more detail in this article, but generally aspartame is considered safe for human consumption.
But there is a rare exception.
Most people can digest aspartame safely. However some people suffer from a rare, but serious, genetic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU).
Should I Be Worried About PKU?
Probably not, unless you were born yesterday! It’s very rare and is usually diagnosed in infancy.
PKU is one of the nine conditions that the midwife screens for when he or she administers the blood spot (heel prick) test, when a newborn is about five days old.
Because it gets picked up so early, these days PKU can be managed before it can do any damage.
Can Aspartame Kill People With PKU?
People with PKU are born without the ability to digest phenylalanine, because they don’t make enough of the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase to break it down properly.
Untreated, phenylalanine builds up to toxic levels, causing seizures, brain damage and intellectual disability.
Fortunately, thanks to neonatal screening, people diagnosed with PKU can manage their condition with special supplements and by following a diet low in phenylalanine.
As phenylalanine is a common amino acid, people with PKU must stick to a very low-protein diet, avoid aspartame and monitor their intake of other sources of phenylalanine, including potatoes and cereals.
Products containing aspartame must be clearly labelled by manufacturers. This is partly so that people who can’t digest phenylalanine are able manage their health.
Can Aspartame Kill If You Have Too Much Of It?
For most people aspartame is safe within recommended daily limits.
And those limits are pretty generous.
The average adult would need to be drinking more than 19 cans of diet soda every day or using over 100 sachets of sweetener to exceed current recommendations.
Even if you went above this limit, it wouldn’t kill you. It might cause some digestive issues… but it won’t kill you.
If Aspartame Is Safe, Why Are People So Worried About It?
If you’re asking ‘can aspartame kill’, it’s probably because you are conscious about your health.
It’s not a bad thing to be concerned about what you’re putting into your body. But despite its bad reputation aspartame is an example of how seriously we take food safety in this day and age.
For most of human history the food-safety testing procedure has been; dare a teenage boy to eat it and if he doesn’t die, then it’s probably safe.
We consume known carcinogens every day. These got grandfathered into our diets, from before the idea of a carcinogen was known to science.
Most were foodstuffs were never subject to the extensive testing and research that artificial sweetener had to undergo, before being declared fit for human consumption.
If they had been, our shelves would be far emptier. No bacon and certainly no booze.
So skip the diet coke, if it puts your mind at rest. But don’t forget that when it comes to what’s behind the bar, the known carcinogen isn’t the mixer. It’s the very ancient, all-natural, distilled-from-whole-grains alcohol.