Aspartame is a low-calorie sugar substitute that is approximately 200 times as sweet as sucrose or table sugar. It is used to sweeten a variety of beverages, foods and pharmaceuticals. Aspartame is composed of two amino acids (building blocks of proteins), aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and a small amount of methanol. These amino acids exist naturally in protein-containing foods, including meats, grains and dairy products. Methanol is naturally present in the body and in many foods such as fruit and vegetable juices. The amino acids composing aspartame are digested in the same manner as any amino acids. Methanol is metabolized into formaldehyde and formic acid.
Aspartame was approved for use in Canada in 1981. Health Canada has evaluated the results of an extensive array of toxicological tests in laboratory animals and, more recently, a large number of clinical studies in humans and has concluded that aspartame was safe for human use. Aspartame is currently permitted for use as a sweetener in foods in many countries and its safety has been carefully examined by health authorities and international expert groups around the world.
Aspartame is consumed by millions of people when they choose popular food and beverage items such as yogurts, chewing gums and diet sodas. The average daily intake in the general population ranges from 2 to 3 mg aspartame per kg of body weight. Aspartame is often used to help reduce the number of calories in a person’s diet, although the assumption that aspartame prevents weight gain or obesity has not been confirmed.
Concerns related to the consumption of aspartame
Aspartame has been approved for consumption by the general public, including diabetics, pregnant and nursing women and children by more than 90 nations. The only persons considered to be at risk are those with a rare hereditary disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU) who must control their phenylalanine intake from all sources, including aspartame. Phenylketonuria is diagnosed soon after birth. In Canada, products sweetened with aspartame must be labelled as containing aspartame, a source of phenylalanine.
The European Scientific Committee on Food conducted a review of 500 reports on aspartame in 2002 and concluded from biochemical, clinical and behavioral research that the acceptable daily intake of 40 mg aspartame per kg of body weight per day is safe except for people diagnosed with phenylketonuria. The acceptable daily intake is the amount that can be consumed every day over a lifetime without appreciable health risk.
Although there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting the safety of this sweetener, when used according to the provisions of the Food and Drug Regulations, any new information concerning the safety of a product is reviewed as soon as it is made fully available. Should any conclusive evidence be found linking the consumption of aspartame to adverse health effects, Health Canada will take appropriate action.
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