The other day, I saw my dad picking up a few boxes of Coke Zero from the grocery store.
“Not again! It’s way too sweet!” I let out a sigh.
He went on explaining that it had no calories, refusing to believe it was a cause of his weight gain.
I enjoyed the original version of the drink when I was younger. But when my dad switched over to its so-called “healthier” counterpart, I stopped drinking it. The sweetness became overbearing and tasted weird; I much preferred the sweetness of fruits.
What is Aspartame?
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener and contains 4 calories per gram, similar to sugar. Oftentimes, this sweetener is viewed as healthier and can even help weight loss. The reason? Aspartame is about 200 times more potent than sugar, which means you can consume much fewer calories whilst enjoying its sweetness. However, many refuse to believe that aspartame is safe to eat even if it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDI),
Aspartame is composed of two amino acids: aspartate and phenylalanine. The end of the molecule also has one extra carbon atom attached.
Aspartate, an amino acid, has received multiple claims for affecting normal brain processes such as headaches and migraines. But we can easily find it in typical dietary protein such as poultry and beef as well.
The other amino acid is phenylalanine. This amino acid does not have much effect unless you suffer phenylketonuria, a rare condition where an accumulation of aspartame ingestion could be detrimental to the brain because the body is unable to properly break it down.
For most people, these two amino acids are not at all harmful when broken down and released into the blood. However, when the additional carbon of aspartame molecule breaks down, it forms methanol, which is poisonous when consumed in large quantities. It seems wise to ultimately avoid it, but in reality, we can find higher amounts of methanol in many fruits and juices. According to Dr. Eric Walters from Rosalind Franklin University, while a 12 ounce can of diet soft drink contains 0.024 grams of methanol, grape juice contains nearly double the amount that is 0.046 grams of methanol.
The FDA suggests that consuming 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day is safe. Technically, you would need to consume 19 more cans of diet soda for it to be deemed unsafe.
So is aspartame entirely safe?
The problem with artificial sweeteners is the body and brain’s response to it. While it may seem like the perfect solution to experience the joy of sweetness, these products may change the way we perceive sweetness. Because of its high potency, when our taste buds become overstimulated by these sweeteners, we may find that naturally sweet foods like fruit or other filling and nutrient-dense foods like vegetables are no longer palatable.
Our brains are also good at thinking, “I am consuming fewer calories from this diet drink, so it’s okay to indulge myself in this cookie!” Consuming many artificially-sweetened foods may break the brain’s association that sweet foods means calories, making you crave more sweets than healthy foods.
After doing all this research, I was surprised to learn that maybe aspartame isn’t as bad as I thought. Does this mean I support my dad in drinking so much Coke Zero though? Certainly NOT! Most aspartame studies focus on animals, so long-term studies on humans are necessary. To me, the best alternative is to reduce our consumption of foods containing added sugar. Just opt for a glass of water!