The Light Stuff

Oct. 1, 2005
Diet sodas, low calorie juice drinks, reduced calorie yogurts, and ice creams, gelatin, etc.

Diet sodas, low calorie juice drinks, reduced calorie yogurts, and ice creams, gelatin, etc. are all products sweetened with low calorie sweeteners, and their numbers are on the rise. According to a recent survey by the Calorie Control Council, 180 million U.S. adults consume reduced calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages - an increase of 17 million over the past four years. (The Council has been tracking diet and weight control trends and the use of “light” products for 20 years.) Despite the wide variety of low calorie and sugar free products, people want more choices - eight out of 10 consumers (80 percent) want to be offered additional low calorie products.

Numerous reasons exist for the popularity of low calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages. They offer consumers comparable quality in taste as full calorie counterparts, but with fewer calories. Although not a magic bullet, reduced calorie products can help consumers control their weight. With approximately 65 percent of the population overweight or obese, weight control has become more important than ever.

Although one might think weight control would be the number one reason for consuming these products, a survey by the Council indicates that the main reasons are to “stay in overall better health” (mentioned by 73 percent) and “to eat or drink healthier foods and beverages” (68 percent).

Low calorie sweetener update

There are currently five low-calorie sweeteners approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

• acesulfame potassium

• aspartame

• neotame

• saccharin

• sucralose

These sweeteners can be used alone or in combination. Aspartame, which is found in approximately 6,000 products, is one of the most popular low calorie sweeteners.

Unfortunately, aspartame has been the subject of rumors and health scares perpetuated via the Internet. The rumors allege that aspartame is related to everything from lupus to multiple sclerosis, headaches, and more. However, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients, and its safety has been affirmed many times by both regulatory authorities and health professional organizations.

Aspartame scares: fact or fiction?

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 and is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. What is unique about aspartame is that it is completely broken down by the body into its components and digested naturally. These components are aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and a small amount of methanol - all found in common foods. For example, a serving of non-fat milk provides about six times more phenylalanine and 13 times more aspartic acid as compared to an equivalent amount of diet beverage sweetened 100 percent with aspartame. Likewise, a serving of tomato juice provides about six times more methanol compared to the same amount of diet beverage containing aspartame.

Once broken down, aspartame’s components are absorbed into the blood and used in normal bodily processes, just as they would be when derived from protein or other foods. Neither aspartame nor its components accumulate in the body. Thus, there are no physiological reasons why aspartame would cause any adverse reactions or health problems.

The FDA has affirmed the safety of aspartame on many occasions, and regulatory and scientific bodies such as the French Food Safety Agency, the Scientific Committee on Food of the European Union, and Health Canada have recently evaluated the extensive body of scientific literature, as well as the allegations on the Internet, and reconfirmed the safety of aspartame.

In addition, leading health authorities such as the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Parkinson Foundation, Inc., the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Lupus Foundation of America, have reviewed claims on the Internet and concluded that they are false.

Most recently, the American Dietetic Association confirmed the safety and benefits of aspartame (and other low calorie sweeteners) in their 2004 position statement on nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners. Specifically, the paper notes, “A comprehensive review of the safety of aspartame has recently been published. The review covers previous publications as well as new information that support the safety of aspartame as a food additive...”

Aspartame's role in a healthy diet

Aspartame is not only safe, it is useful for those who want to control their overall calories. For example, a four-ounce serving of gelatin sweetened with aspartame can save 70 calories, four ounces of pudding sweetened with aspartame can save 80 calories, and an eight-ounce light yogurt sweetened with aspartame can save 140 calories. Such simple substitutions or changes in a person’s diet can have a profound difference on their weight over time and can help keep it in check. For example, an aspartame-sweetened yogurt can provide the same nutritional benefits, including calcium, protein, vitamins, etc., as its full calorie counterpart with approximately half the calories.

In addition to having no calories, aspartame is also non-cariogenic.

The American Dental Association’s (ADA) House of Delegates approved a position statement acknowledging the “Role of Sugar-Free Foods and Medications in Maintaining Good Oral Health.” The ADA recognized that “It is neither advisable nor appropriate to eliminate from the American diet sugar containing foods that provide necessary energy value for optimal nutrition.”

The Association recommended, however, that “Major efforts be made to promote the use of sugar-free foods or chewing substances in place of sugar containing foods that involve a frequent intake or repeated oral use ... use of these sugar-free products will contribute to improved oral health.”

Aspartame and the other low calorie sweeteners that make reduced calorie and sugar free foods and beverages possible can be incorporated into an overall healthy diet. Such foods and beverages can aid consumers in controlling calories and maintaining good oral health.

Too much of a good thing?

With the increasing number of reduced calorie and sugar-free products, many people mistakenly believe that consumers are using large quantities of aspartame.

To fully grasp the amount of aspartame being consumed, it is important to understand the concept of Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). The ADI is a regulatory concept based on the results of animal studies that use extremely large doses divided by a 100-fold safety factor. The ADI is the amount of an additive, if consumed every day during a lifetime, that is considered safe. It should not be regarded as a specific point at which safety ends and possible health problems begin. In fact, the FDA has said it is not concerned if consumption occasionally exceeds the ADI.

The ADI for aspartame in the United States is 50mg/kg body weight. Extensive research has shown that aspartame consumption patterns for the general population and various subgroups are well below the ADI. Aspartame consumption by high-level consumers (90th percentile) in the general population, including children, is between 5 and 10 percent of the ADI. This means that nine out of 10 people consume less than 10 percent of the ADI, which is well within government guidelines.

To put this in perspective, a 150-pound adult would have to consume 20 12-oz. diet carbonated drinks, or 42 four ounce servings of gelatin, or 97 packets of tabletop sweetener each day to reach the ADI. A 50-pound child would have to consume about six 12-oz. cans of carbonated beverage, or 14 four ounce servings of gelatin, or 32 packets of tabletop sweetener each day to reach the ADI.

Beth Hubrich, MS, RD, LD, is Associate Director of the Calorie Control Council, a non-profit trade association representing the low-calorie and low-fat food and beverage industry since 1966. For more information about low-calorie sweeteners visit For more specific information on aspartame, visit