What is Aspartame?


Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used as a sugar substitute in a wide range of food and drinks.  It is approved for use in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  Aspartame is marketed under the brands NutraSweet, Equal and Sugar Twin.


In 1965, a scientist named James Schlatter created aspartame while working on an anti-ulcer drug.  The story goes that he accidentally discovered its sweet taste when he licked his finger.

Aspartame is made from two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine.  That probably doesn’t mean a lot to most people, so lets break it down a bit.

What is an amino acid?  Amino acids are are organic compounds (molecules that contain carbon) that combine to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins are the basic building blocks of life.  Our bodies need amino acids in order to function.  They help us to break down food, grow, repair body tissue, and perform may other body functions.  Amino acids can be divided into three types:

  1. Essential amino acids
    • These are amino acids that are required for proper body functions but cannot be made by the human body.
    • We need to get these amino acids from the foods we eat.
  2. Nonessential amino acids
    • Our bodies produce these amino acids, even if we don’t get them from the food we eat.
  3. Conditional amino acids
    • These amino acids are usually not required, except in times of illness and stress.

Aspartic acid is a non-essential amino acid.  Our bodies produce aspartic acid even if we don’t get it from the food we eat.  It helps with hormone production and normal nervous system function.

Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid.  We have to get it from the foods we eat.  If we don’t get enough, it could lead to confusion, lack of energy, depression, decreased alertness, memory problems, and lack of appetite.  Phenylalanine is found in most foods that contain protein such as beef, poultry, pork, fish, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese.

Common Uses:

Aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than ordinary table sugar (sucrose).  Because of this, only a very small amount of aspartame is required to sweeten foods.  The amounts required are usually so small that the number of calories added by the aspartame is negligible.  That’s why it is often used to sweeten diet or low calorie items.

To produce a taste more like table sugar, aspartame is often blended with other artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium.

Aspartame can be found in approximately 6,000 food products sold worldwide.  These products include:

  • soft drinks (diet sodas and juices),
  • candies,
  • cereals,
  • sugar-free chewing gum,
  • cocoa mixes,
  • frozen desserts,
  • pharmaceutical drugs and supplements,
  • tabletop sweeteners,
  • teas and instant coffees,
  • yogurt.

Aspartame is generally not used in baking because it breaks down under high temperatures.

Health Issues / Side Effects:

Aspartame is very controversial and is probably one of the most studied food additives.  A quick internet search will yield dozens of sites citing aspartame as the cause for all kinds of different illnesses, and that approval for its use has be tied to flawed studies and government corruption.  It has been claimed that aspartame is responsible for epidemics of cancer, brain tumors and multiple sclerosis.  I am really not qualified to judge on any of this.  Below are some links that make these claims:

And here are some links indicating aspartame has been well studied and that claims against it are unfounded:

There is at least one aspartame related issue with no controversy.  There is a rare inherited disease called Phenylketonuria.  People born with this disease cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine.  If the disease is not treated, it can lead to problems with brain development.  Since aspartame contains phenylalanine, individuals with this disease need to avoid it.

Personal Notes:

When I drink a diet soft drink, there is always a distinct after taste that I have always assumed/associated with aspartame.  Sometimes I feel like it gives me a headache (but I suppose this could be entirely psychological).  I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I don’t like that taste so I don’t eat products containing aspartame.

My personal philosophy is that if (or when) we have a choice, it would be better to take the non-artificial option.  Of course, this might mean making trade-offs and sacrifices like cutting back on the number of soft drinks we consume.

E Number:

Aspartame has an E number of 951.


If you found this post useful, please leave a comment.



No related content found.

3 Comments on “What is Aspartame?

  1. I have suffered from intense migraine headaches for several years. A while ago I cut out aspartame as well as other artificial flavorings, and I have finally found some relief. Aspartame and other flavor enhancers are included in thousands upon thousands of food products, and are frequently used in meals here in Thailand… it’s nearly impossible to avoid these ingredients, and the only way I feel safe is to consume only foods that I have prepared myself. It’s hard to empathize with angry consumers who have only now found out about the Pink Slime scandal, when I have had to monitor all food additives and fillers for several years,” and have made great modifications to my life to avoid them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *