Aspartame Poisoning: Is This Sugar Really Sweet To You?

aspartame poisoning
aspartame poisoning

If you suffer from diabetes or are health conscious and are looking for ways to cut calories, you probably know what aspartame is. The most common artificial sweetener used in the world, aspartame has been widely used since the approval of the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) came along in 1974. It was deemed to be much safer than its predecessors, cyclamate and saccharin, which came with many side effects. Aspartame slowly made its presence felt and began to be used as THE artificial sweetener in several commercial food products.1

An odorless, white crystalline powder, composed of two amino acids, L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine, aspartame is 160–220 times sweeter than sucrose.2 Today it is used in several diabetic desserts and sweets, diet colas and beverages, as a tabletop artificial sweetener, cookies, breakfast cereals, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and more. It provides all the sweetness of sugar with only a fraction of the calories.3


For this reason, it was not only embraced by diabetics but also weight watchers. It offered them a convenient way to enjoy sweet nothings without the risk of elevating blood sugar levels or expanding the waistline. But everything is not as peachy as it sounds. Aspartame has been associated with a number of side effects and even with cancer. Here’s a look at whether aspartame poisoning is a real thing.

Does Aspartame Cause Headaches?

Some people are more sensitive to certain substances than others. A study reported that among individuals with self-reported headaches after ingestion of aspartame, a subgroup of the individuals monitored actually reported more headaches when tested under controlled conditions. It concluded that some individuals are particularly likely to suffer from headaches caused by aspartame and may want to limit their consumption.4 This 1995 study, however, has later been critiqued by several other researchers for the sampling and methodology and it hasn’t yet been replicated. Some think that headaches caused by aspartame could also be attributed to the anxiety surrounding the supposed ill effects of the sweetener.


Can Aspartame Cause Cancer?

In a 2007 study, groups of 70–95 rats were administered aspartame with their regular feed from the 12th day of fetal life until natural death. It was observed that aspartame led to an increased incidence of malignant tumors, leukemia, and mammary cancers. It concluded that when life-span exposure to aspartame begins as early as fetal life, its carcinogenic effects are increased.5

However, the USFDA places aspartame in the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) category. Human studies linking aspartame with cancer and tumor formation are not concrete enough to support the hypothesis that aspartame is carcinogenic, as reported by the American Cancer Society.6


Should Overweight People Have Aspartame?

It’s a vicious cycle – people often switch to foods with artificial sweeteners to cut calories and stay away from diseases like diabetes. But it is often these practices that make them susceptible to the deadly disease. According to a study of 2856 individuals, it was observed that those who consumed aspartame tended to have a higher BMI and poor glucose tolerance than those who did not have aspartame at all. The researchers surmised that aspartame impairs glucose tolerance in obese people.7 So if you have been guzzling diet soda or stirring in aspartame in your coffee instead of plain old sugar for weight management, you need a better game plan.

Can Aspartame Trigger Seizures?

Researchers claim in one study that frequent consumption of aspartame is associated with seizures. According to the study conducted on mice, aspartame can elevate phenylalanine (a metabolite of aspartame formed inside the body) in the brain, and thereby inhibit the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters that protect us against seizure activity.8 However, subsequent studies have not been able to establish the link between aspartame intake and seizures.9 10


Does Aspartame Affect Mood?

Aspartame has also been linked with mood or behavior changes. A 1993 study had found that aspartame (30 mg/kg body weight) worsened depression symptoms in patients with a history of depression so severely that the study had to be stopped midway. But aspartame seemed to have no such effects on people without such a history. However, in a 2014 study on healthy adults, 25 mg/kg aspartame seemed to make the participants more irritable and depressed. A diet entirely lacking in aspartame or a low dose of 10 mg/kg did not have such effects.11

Should Those Phenylketonuria Have Aspartame?

Though aspartame is largely considered to be safe for those with type 2 diabetes, it should be avoided by people with phenylketonuria as they cannot metabolize phenylalanine, a component of aspartame, which can result in brain and nerve damage.12


Phenylketonuria is a rare genetic condition in which the amino acid phenylalanine gets accumulated and built up in the body. In fact, almost every diet soda can mentions that the carbonated beverage should not be consumed by people with this birth defect as it contains aspartame.

What’s The Safe Limit For Aspartame?

The USFDA has established an acceptable daily intake limit (expressed in mg/kg body weight) for every available nonnutritive sweetener (NNS). The acceptable daily intake limit for aspartame is set at 50 mg per kg of body weight. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), on the other hand, has allowed a slightly lower acceptable daily intake for aspartame, at 40 mg per kg of body weight.13


A 12 oz can of diet soda usually contains about 192 mg aspartame and a sachet of the tabletop sweetener contains about 35 mg. A typical adult weighing around 75 kg would have to consume more than 19 cans a day to go over the limit!14 However, anecdotal evidences point to the fact that long-term use of aspartame can have side effects.

In Conclusion: The Jury Is Out On Aspartame

Despite the high availability and seals of approval from food regulatory organizations like the USFDA and EFSA, the scientific community remains divided about aspartame. Some say that aspartame is metabolized into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. Phenylalanine, in particular, has been associated with neurological disorders.


But some researchers argue that these metabolites are found in much higher quantities in foods and beverages consumed on a daily basis as well. For example, a glass of non-fat milk provides approximately 6 times more phenylalanine and 13 times more aspartic acid. A glass of tomato juice has roughly 6 times more methanol than the same volume of any beverage sweetened with 100 percent aspartame.15

Until the scientific community reaches a conclusion, we won’t know for sure if aspartame poisoning is real. However, it still has side effects, especially in the long term. So it is best to minimize the consumption of aspartame and use it sparingly. You can try other alternatives of sugar that are more healthful such as honey, jaggery, cinnamon, and brown sugar.