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Aspartame has a bad rap. It has been suspected of causing cancer and depression. However, a new video from the American Chemical Society pulls together the latest research on the food additive, and it’s not as bad as you might think.
This four-minute clip, which mentions several peer-reviewed studies, is part of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Reactions science video series. The American Chemical Society is a congressionally chartered, independent organization of chemists that publishes about 50 academic journals.
Questions about aspartame relate to its metabolites – the chemical products created when our bodies digest the sugar substitute. Critics have raised concerns about the metabolites methanol and phenylalanine.
Over time, methanol can produce the known carcinogen formaldehyde. While this might seem scary, the video claims that the body actually produces and uses 1,000 times more formaldehyde than you could consume through aspartame. After helping to make important proteins, formaldehyde gets turned into formic acid and exits the body through urine.
Some studies have shown that aspartame-made phenylalanine isn’t seeping into our brains and causing depression. Milk contains eight times more phenylalanine than aspartame, meaning your morning bowl of Fiber One cereal — which carries the chemical too — isn’t likely bringing you down. Aside from milk and cereals, aspartame is also found in some types of chewing gums, nutritional bars, yogurts and other foods.
Moreover, the video says recent studies debunk the idea that some people are hypersensitive to aspartame or that it causes cognitive impairments.
It is unlikely that a person could come close to reaching the aspartame levels deemed unacceptable by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To do so, you’d have to consume 97 aspartame sugar packets or more than 17 cans of diet soda in less than 24 hours.
What this video doesn’t address is the emerging but limited research raising questions about how artificial sweeteners affect gut bacteria and glucose intolerance.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the role the American Chemical Society plays in the scientific community and to highlight recent studies about other artificial sweeteners, namely saccharin. The headline has been updated to reflect the specific studies on aspartame discussed in the video.
Catherine Woods is a 2015 mass media science and engineering fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She worked with the PBS NewsHour in the summer of 2015.
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