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Aspartame is a chemically-produced artificial sweetener that is commonly used as a sugar substitute in manufactured foods and drinks. Food scientists create aspartame through a series of different amino acid syntheses, and the resulting compound is roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is most stable in liquids, which makes it a popular choice for “diet” sodas and fruit drinks. Manufacturers typically need so little to create a sweet taste that the compound is virtually calorie-free, and most government regulatory agencies and food safety boards around the world have approved aspartame for human consumption. It is not without its critics, though. Some studies link the compound to cancer and certain degenerative diseases, the risks of which become more pronounced the more a person consumes.
Most diet sodas and “sugar-free” fruit drinks contain aspartame. The sweetener disperses really well in liquid, and in most cases just a few drops will go a long way. It is also used in some sugar-free candies, chewing gums, and cough drops, and is frequently available as a powdered sugar substitute that can be added to coffee or other beverages. Powdered aspartame is marketed under the brand names NutraSweet® and Equal® in many parts of the world; AminoSweet® is another name for the same thing. Product labels in the European Union often refer to it by its registered name of E 951.
Stability and Shelf Life
The compound tends to lose its effectiveness when exposed to intense heat, which means that it is not commonly used in baked goods or other foods that need to be cooked. When it gets hot, its proteins break down which can cause a lot of trouble in recipes. Batters often get runny, cookies dry out, and foods can take on a bitter, almost acidic taste. Natural sugar substitutes like stevia or agave tend to work better when heat is required.
The sweetener also breaks down under high pH values. The pH of most sodas is low enough for the compound to remain stable for a few months before it begins to lose its potency. This is one reason soda companies frequently put an expiration date on their products. Expired soda isn’t necessarily harmful, but the taste isn’t likely to be very good. In powdered form, the sweetener stays fresh and stable for about a year in most cases.
Many people find that this sweetener tastes different than sugar. It tends to last longer in the mouth, which has led many in the food industry to name it a “long sweetener,” and it is usually also very intense. Manufacturers typically only need to use a very little bit in recipes, often far less than they would use if they were adding ordinary sugar. Sodas and candies made with the chemical substitute are usually somewhat easy to differentiate from their “regular” counterparts on taste alone.
How It’s Made
Chemically speaking, aspartame is a “methyl ester,” which is a class of chemicals that come from organic, mostly vegetable sources. Scientists isolate several amino acids in order to create the compound, and the process requires a great degree of precision in temperature, timing, and methodology. The key components are phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol.
The sweetener was discovered accidentally by a chemist in the 1960s who was researching ways to make an effective ulcer drug. According to most accounts, he synthesized the amino acids as part of his preparations, then accidentally licked his finger after touching the solution. Once he realized how sweet it was and how easy it was to create, he began looking for ways to market it in to the food and beverage industry. Aspartame entered the manufactured food scene around 1975 in most places, and has been approved as a commercial sugar substitute in the United States, Europe, and most other parts of the world since the early 1980s.
Safety Concerns and Controversy
Despite being widely approved by most governments, the sweetener is not without its critics. There are a number of people in the medical community who question the wisdom of substituting sugar, a natural compound, with something that has been chemically designed. Some studies have also attempted to link heavy aspartame consumption with an increased risk of cancer, degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and a range of neurological disorders.
At the same time, a roughly equal number of studies show that the compound is generally safe when consumed more moderately. Most diet sodas and sugar-free foods that use the sweetener do so in very small amounts. In most cases, a person would have to eat or drink a vast number of aspartame-containing foods and beverages in order to even get close to the “dangerous” levels quoted in most research.
Specific Health Risks
The compound is known to be dangerous in any amount for people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a disease that makes the body produce too much tyrosine when phenylalanines are ingested. Those with PKU should avoid any products that contain the sugar substitute since they pose a significant health threat no matter the amount ingested. Even for generally healthy people, too much of the sweetener all at once can cause problems like mild stomach upset and diarrhea.