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What is Aspartame?

Jessup, MD

The prospect of enjoying a sugar-free drink or snack is alluring to many. This is what draws many to beverages like Coke Zero, Minute Maid Zero, and much more. The question that arises is: what makes these drinks sugar-free? The answer is aspartame. Aspartame is a sweetener that was introduced to replace sucrose. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose while being low in caloric value.

It was invented in 1965 by James. M. Schlatter. Schlatter was researching antiulcer drugs when he licked the compound off of his finger. This is when he discovered aspartame and its insanely sweet flavor. After its invention, aspartame entered the market in 1981 as NutraSweet. To this day it is still a key sweetener in many countries.

Many products contain aspartame, therefore it is in the diet of many children and adults. Food that contains aspartame must have the label “contains phenylalanine” and must state that it is not intended for cooking or baking. Despite this, aspartame salts and their metal complexes can be protected by fats, allowing for their use in pastries. Aspartame consists of two amino acids (L-phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid).

Aspartame has also been employed in the encapsulation process to enhance the payload's qualities, adding to its stability and enhancing its flavor, color, and texture as well as extending its shelf life.

This method is used not only for food but for cosmetics, agrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals to control the release of the drug. Due to its chemical makeup (carboxylate and amino groups), aspartame can chelate heavy metals from food, beverages, and the packages in which these items are served and stored.

Aspartame is often advertised as a healthy substitute for sugar. This marketing targets those with diabetes and those who want to lose weight. Though the claims are attractive, it has never gained substantial traction.

Though many sources state how harmful aspartame is, there is an equal number of sources stating its safety for human consumption. Therefore, all we can do is be mindful of how much aspartame we consume.

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