10 July 2009

Supermarket bans sweetener

Woolworths’ decision to remove aspartame from all its own-brand products has highlighted the ongoing debate on the health hazards, or not, of this widely used sugar substitute.


Woolworths’ recent decision to remove aspartame from all its own-brand products has highlighted the ongoing debate on the health hazards – or not – of the world’s most widely used sugar substitute.

The move was made in response to consumer concerns. But are these concerns really valid? Health24's DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden, takes a closer look at what the research says.

Rigorous testing
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that's manufactured from an amino acid called phenylalanine. The accusations levelled against this sweetener are bizarre and colourful and not based on scientific evidence.

Keep in mind that most people who can afford to eat meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products will ingest more phenylalanine on a daily basis than from aspartame.

A large number of studies have found that aspartame doesn't cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or multiple sclerosis, or any one of the many other diseases and conditions that scare e-mails and websites assure you will occur if you use aspartame.

Before any new food product, such as aspartame, is allowed to be sold to the public, the manufacturers have to subject it to extensive testing to determine whether it's safe for human consumption. Usually, such tests are first conducted with experimental animals to determine if the food or sweetener causes any disease condition, such as cancer, genetic defects, nerve degeneration, weight gain or any metabolic abnormalities.

If the product passes this first hurdle, it is fed to the experimental animals in massive doses, which far exceed any human intake. If the product passes this second hurdle, it's usually tested on human volunteers who are monitored closely. If no changes in metabolism, genetic potential and/or behaviour are noted, the product is classified as “Generally Safe for Human Consumption (GRAS)”, and is allowed to be sold.

In view of the exhaustive nature of the controls exercised over such new food products, consumers can rest assured that aspartame won't cause harm.

The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the US-based Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the American Medical Association all confirm that there is no relationship between aspartame and cancer, tumours, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis.

Some shouldn't use aspartame
A small number of people, who suffer from a rare genetic disease called phenylketonuria, can't use aspartame because it contains the amino acid phenylalanine.

Foods and beverages sweetened with aspartame all carry a warning directed at phenylketonuria sufferers to warn them that the products contain phenylalanine. In these people, consumption of too much aspartame can result in brain damage.

The rest of the population, who don't have a deficiency of the enzyme required to metabolise this amino acid, can safely use moderate amounts of aspartame – as long as it forms part of a balanced diet.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame intake should be limited to no more than 50mg per kilogram of body weight per day. A 360ml can of diet soda contains more or less 225mg of the sweetener. So, a 55kg woman can ingest 2750mg of aspartame a day and a 70kg man could have 3500mg a day.

(Health24, July 2009)

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