Aspartame: Toxic or Not?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener used in popular diet drinks, Equal, various sugar-free gums and candies, etc. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), released a report labeling the compound as a possible carcinogen. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded by stating that the FDA disagrees with the report, and those findings do not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer.

Professor of Organic Chemistry and Toxicology, Maryam Foroozesh, PhD at Xavier University of Louisiana and Louisiana Cancer Research Center faculty member, says the FDA is correct and notes that the WHO conclusions are based on very high dosages of aspartame; much higher than humans normally consume. “The WHO report is basically cautioning consumers to use aspartame moderately,” Dr. Foroozesh explains, explaining that one can of Diet Coke contains about 200 milligrams (mg) of aspartame, and a packet of aspartame sweetener contains about 35 mg of aspartame. To reach the potentially harmful dosage of aspartame, following WHO's guidelines, more than 14 cans of a diet drink or 80 packs of sweetener must be consumed per day.

"An important principle of toxicology is that "the dose makes the poison". All chemicals can be toxic to humans at concentrations above a certain threshold, specific to the compound, including water," Dr. Foroozesh insists.  Aspartame breaks down in the GI system into two natural amino acids (aspartic acid and phenyl alanine) and methanol. These compounds at dosages that aspartame users are normally exposed to are not considered harmful. WHO is keeping the acceptable daily threshold for aspartame consumption at 40 mg per kilogram (kg) (1 kg equals 2.2 pounds) of body weight. The FDA's threshold is higher at 50 mg per kg body weight. This means that for a person of about 70 kg (154 pounds), consumption of up to 2,800 (or 3,500 according to the FDA) mg of aspartame per day is considered safe.

According to Dr. Foroozesh, based on the current evidence, there is no need to be concerned about the regular usage of aspartame at normal levels in connection to cancer.

Similarly, the FDA has expressed no safety concerns regarding its normal use.

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