Aspartame (brand name NutraSweet) allows many sugar and calorie-watchers to have their cake and eat it, too. That’s because the artificial sweetener has a mere four calories per gram. It’s also 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so just a few calories have tons of sweetening power.
You can find aspartame in many foods in the supermarket, including flavored yogurt, diet sodas and beverages, gelatins, puddings, and hot cocoa. You can also find it as a sugar substitute packaged as Equal (the blue packet that sits next to the regular sugar packets on the restaurant table).
Aspartame contains two amino acids — aspartic acid and phenylalanine — which are also found in foods such as meats, grains, dairy products, and vegetables. Your body processes aspartame the same way it processes these natural amino acids.
Individuals with an inherited disease called phenyketonuria (PKU) have a hard time eliminating excess amounts of the amino acid phenylalanine. Too much of this amino acid and its by-products can be damaging to a developing nervous system and lead to permanent brain damage. (All children born in the U.S. are screened for PKU at birth.) Those with PKU should be aware of all sources of phenylalanine in their diets.
Aspartame has undergone extensive research studies and has been shown to be safe to use by healthy adults, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, and diabetics. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has received the support of health organizations such as the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Medical Association.
The FDA has calculated an “Acceptable Daily Intake” (ADI) for aspartame (the level at which aspartame is safe to consume were you to eat it every day for your entire life). The ADI is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. (To convert your weight to kilograms, divide it by 2.2) Just how much aspartame is that? A 150-pound person would have to sprinkle 97 packets of Equal or guzzle 20 aspartame-packed cans of soft drinks each day to reach the ADI. A 50-pound child would have to drink seven cans of diet soda or 32 packets of the blue stuff. (Note: It’s a good idea to monitor your child’s diet to make sure he or she is eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet rather than filling up on artificially-sweetened foods that provide little in the way of nutrition.)
Before you reach for an artificial sweetener to cook with or to satisfy that sweet tooth, try using fresh fruit, 100 percent fruit juice, or dried fruit for sweetness that adds some nutrition. If you can and want to consume aspartame, make sure it’s in moderation and part of a nutritious, well-balanced diet. At a mere 16 calories a teaspoon, real sugar can still be part of a healthy diet when used in moderation (and can even be used sparingly in a weight-reducing diet).
In this world where food is judged on its calorie and fat content, we often get side-tracked about what constitutes a healthy diet. Don’t let the calorie content of a food be the only factor when it comes to deciding whether or not an item ends up in your shopping cart. It’s best to eat a diet that includes a wide variety of naturally nutritious foods such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, along with lean dairy and protein sources. I would hate to see you guzzling liters of diet soda while the calcium-rich milk in your refrigerator goes sour.