Aspartame is the methyl ester of the dipeptide of the amino acids L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. Upon ingestion, aspartame breaks down into its natural residual components, including aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and under strongly acidic or alkaline conditions, aspartame may generate methanol (wood alcohol) by way of hydrolysis, but this is extremely rare. L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine are natural amino acids found in all protein formulas and in many natural foods. Banana’s are naturally high in phenylalanine- the riper the banana the higher the amount.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener in name only when directed as being a sweetener but it is produced by combining two naturally occurring amino acids. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar in typical concentrations, without the high energy value of sugar. While aspartame, like other peptides, has a caloric value of 4 kilocalories (17 kilojoules) per gram, the quantity of aspartame needed to produce a sweet taste is so small that its caloric contribution is negligible, which makes it a popular sweetener for those trying to avoid calories from sugar. The health benefits alone for this attribute are well known and accepted when one takes into account the high instances of diabetes and obesity due to the high sugar consumption by people all over the world and as such aspartame is also one of the main sugar substitutes used by people with diabetes .

Aspartame is marketed under a number of trademark names, including Equal, NutraSweet, and Canderel, and is an ingredient found in tens of thousands of consumer foods and beverages sold worldwide, including (but not limited to) diet sodas and other soft drinks, instant breakfasts, breath mints, cereals, sugar-free chewing gum, cocoa mixes, frozen desserts, gelatin desserts, juices, laxatives, chewable vitamins supplements, milk drinks, pharmaceutical drugs and supplements, shake mixes, tabletop sweeteners, teas, instant coffees, topping mixes, wine coolers and yogurt. It is provided as a table condiment in some countries. However, aspartame is not always suitable for baking because it often breaks down when heated and loses much of its sweetness.

Milk based protein fortified foods have a very high amount of naturally occurring L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine and as such represent 100 of times more naturally occurring amounts of these natural amino acids compared to those contributed by the use of Aspartame as a sweetener in the same serving size of the food.

High levels of the naturally-occurring essential amino acid phenylalanine are a health hazard to those born with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disease that prevents phenylalanine from being properly metabolized by the body and as such increased amounts of phenylalanine are stored in the brain over time causing seizers and other mental health issues. Since individuals with PKU must consider aspartame as an additional source of phenylalanine, foods containing aspartame sold in New Zealand and Australia must state “Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine” on their product labels.

This fact alone has contributed too many miss informed consumers believing that aspartame is bad for their health as it causes brain damage etc in all people. This fact must be assessed in the same light as people who suffer reactions to other foods such as nuts, honey and gluten. These are rear events, but you don’t see a call to ban nuts, honey or wheat products. This hysteria was used by many sugar industry lobbyists to lobby against the introduction of aspartame into food as a sugar substitute in the 1970’s. The profit the sugar industry has lost to aspartame sales has run into billions of dollars and so today in the 21st century, they still are still lobbying for its removal from food.

This has been the subject of controversy since aspartame’s initial approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974. Concerns have been raised by the sugar industry lobbyists about the quality of the research supporting its safety and the long-term effects that increased consumption could have on the public. Some scientific studies, combined with allegations of conflicts of interest in the sweetener’s FDA approval process, have been the focus of vocal activism, conspiracy theories and hoaxes regarding postulated risks of aspartame. After 30 years of being used in food and people generally getting healthier and living longer, even after it is estimated that over a billion of the world’s population consume foods containing Aspartame every day, a 2007 safety evaluation once again found that the weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener. Some sources of claims regarding postulated aspartame dangers and conspiracies have been the subject of critical examination due to the extreme lobbyist groups funded by the sugar industry. In 1987, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the food additive approval process had been followed for aspartame and based on government research reviews and recommendations from advisory bodies such as the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by more than ninety countries worldwide. In 1999, FDA officials described the safety of aspartame as “clear cut” and stated that the product is “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved.”

The current New Zealand Dietary Supplements Regulations 1985 Act state that Aspartame is approved for use in food formulas manufactured to these regulations.

To sight the regulations…

16 Artificial sweeteners

(1) In these regulations artificial sweetener means any substance that when added to a dietary supplement, is capable of imparting sweetness to that dietary supplement, and that is not a saccharide, polyhydric alcohol, or honey.

(2) Dietary supplements may contain any of the following artificial sweeteners and no others:

• Aspartame:
• Saccharin and its sodium, and calcium and ammonium compounds:
• Sodium cyclamate and calcium cyclamate.