The aspartame controversy

by Jennifer Bowden / 20 October, 2012
Aspartame or sugar? It’s not straightforward.
Aspartame - sweeteners being poured into a coffee cup

Question: An item on the television show What’s Really in our Food? reported the arti¬ficial sweetener aspartame has been shown to be safe. However, there is much independent research which shows harm from consuming aspartame. I think it should be banned.

Answer: Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested food additives in history. A truckload of safety reviews conducted by government authorities all over the world have all concluded that aspartame, sold here under the NutraSweet and Equal brands, is safe for human consumption. Yet the calls to ban aspartame continue. Aspartame (E951) is around 200 times sweeter than sugar and only very small quantities are needed to sweeten foods. So aspartame provides manufacturers with an effective way of lowering the energy content of drinks, desserts, sweets, chewing gums and other food products. Together with a raft of other food additives, aspartame was scheduled for a safety re-evaluation in 2020 by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But last year the European Commission requested the safety re-evaluation be brought forward, in response to concerns about recent research linking aspartame consumption to an increased risk of cancer, and premature births. Consequently, the EFSA is currently conducting a full review of aspartame. Their findings are scheduled for release in May 2013.

In the meantime, consider the bigger picture of our nation’s health. Undoubtedly the greatest health problem New Zealand, and indeed the world, faces is obesity. It’s an epidemic, rampaging through our communities. Just 34% of New Zealand adults are classified as normal weight; 37% are overweight and nearly 28% obese. In other words, for every New Zealander of normal weight, two are overweight or obese. It’s possible to be fit and healthy at any weight, but most overweight and obese people aren’t healthy. Statistically, they have an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke and
liver disease. Their reproductive health is compromised, they’re more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and gout, and they’re at higher risk of respiratory and sleep problems. All this means a reduced quality of life and shortened life expectancy.

Consumption of energy-dense foods is a factor in weight gain, and energy-dense items such as sugar-sweetened beverages are routinely singled out as a problem, particularly in the US, where the average annual soft drink consumption of 216 litres makes this the single largest contributor of calories to the American diet (the New Zealand average is 84 litres). It would be wrong to blame one food item for the obesity epidemic, but it’s fair to apportion a share of the blame to certain foods, behaviours or environments that scientific research suggests play a role in promoting unwanted weight gain. A recent clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed yet more evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to weight gain. Dutch researchers assigned a group of 641 school children, aged between five and 12 years, to consume either one can of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverage a day – the children didn’t know which drink they were consuming.

After 18 months those children who consumed the sugar-free beverages had gained 6.35kg of weight, whereas those consuming sugar-sweetened beverages gained 7.37kg. Likewise the body mass index (BMI) of sugar-free kids increased by just 0.02 units, whereas the sugar-sweetened kids’ BMI increased by 0.15 units. Clearly then, the replacement of sugar-containing drinks with sugar-free alternatives reduced weight gain and fat accumulation in these children. In a perfect world, people would drink water, milk or other low-energy, nutritious drinks. However, in the real world, many people drink soft drink and lots of it.

The choice then, as health professionals, is whether to recommend sugar-sweetened beverages when the evidence suggests they contribute to unwanted weight gain and all the associated health problems, or to encourage the consumption of sugar-free soft drinks, sweetened with aspartame that – current evidence suggests – is perfectly safe but whose safety continues to be regularly reviewed. The answer today, based on current knowledge, is sugar-free drinks should be chosen over sugar-sweetened beverages.

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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