Almost everyone has a sweet tooth, and kids are certainly no exception. Because excess sugar consumption has been linked to weight gain, tooth decay, and other health problems, many people reach for foods, drinks, and candy that contain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, which offer lots of flavor with fewer calories.
But are these sweeteners safe for kids?
Aspartame is one of the most popular man-made sweeteners on the market. It is used in beverages, chewing gum, breakfast cereals, and desserts. It is also available in packets of tabletop sweetener, like the kind typically offered by restaurants.
Scientists have found that aspartame is generally safe for most people to consume. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency responsible for ensuring the safety of the food and drinks sold in the United States, approved aspartame in 1981 after extensive studies found that it was safe for use as a sweetener. The FDA has approved four other sweeteners for human consumption: saccharine, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), neotame, and sucralose.
Other government agencies and independent health groups have also said that aspartame-containing foods and drinks are safe to consume, as long as they are part of a balanced diet. Those groups include the:
- American Medical Association (AMA)
- American Diabetes Association
- American Dietetic Association (ADA)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
- government regulators in more than 100 countries
Are There Any Health Risks Associated With Aspartame?
When aspartame was first developed, many people had concerns about whether it was safe. After all, it didn't have the track record of other natural ingredients that had been safely consumed for hundreds of years.
Although some people have alleged that aspartame is linked to birth defects and illnesses ranging from multiple sclerosis to Parkinson's disease, government authorities and medical groups throughout the world have evaluated aspartame and approved it as safe for human consumption.
Is There Anyone Who Should Stay Away From Aspartame?
People who have a rare hereditary disease called phenylketonuria (PKU) should stay away from aspartame. Doctors usually detect PKU in an infant within a few days of birth by way of a routine screening test.
PKU affects approximately 1 in 15,000 people in the United States. Those who have the disease cannot break down the compound phenylalanine, which is in aspartame. If someone with PKU consumes significant amounts of food products containing phenylalanine, it builds up in the body and can cause mental impairment and possibly brain damage.
People with PKU need to stay on a phenylalanine-restricted diet to be healthy, so they should avoid all aspartame-containing products.
It is extremely unlikely that the average person who does not have PKU would consume enough aspartame for it to cause a health problem.
How Much Aspartame Is Safe to Consume on a Regular Basis?
The FDA recommends no more than 50 milligrams of aspartame per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of body weight per day for adults. The average person consumes less than 2% of this amount each day. In fact, to reach this level, the average adult would need to drink about 20 cans of diet soft drink each day, and the average child would need to drink seven cans.
Here's a quick guide of popular products and the average amount of aspartame in each serving:
- 12 ounces (360 milliliters) of diet soda = 225 milligrams of aspartame
- 8 ounces (240 milliliters) of sugar-free yogurt = 80 milligrams of aspartame
- 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) of sugar-free frozen dairy dessert (frozen yogurt, ice cream, etc.) = 47 milligrams of aspartame
- 1 packet of artificial sweetener = 37 milligrams of aspartame
How Do I Know if a Product Has Aspartame?
The FDA requires all products that contain aspartame and artificial sweeteners to indicate their usage on the label. However, if you are concerned about the exact amounts of aspartame used in a specific product, you can contact the manufacturer for more information.
So, don't fret if your child eats sugar-free candy or beverages now and then. Just make sure these sweet treats aren't getting in the way of proper nutrition!
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2005