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March 18th, 2010
11:31 AM ET

Is aspartame safe?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors answers readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Richard Casselli, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

"How dangerous is food containing aspartame? Do you personally avoid it? Its been linked to the possible cause of brain tumours or other nervous system defects. If it's so dangerous, why is it still in our foods? Should we be avoiding aspartame?"

Answer

This is an interesting question, Richard, and an equally interesting debate that is ignited every few years or so. The big concern for some consumer groups and scientists echoes your own: Does aspartame cause cancer?

In the 1990s a researcher suggested that rates of brain cancer seemed to surge at about the same time aspartame was introduced here. Add to that various studies in rats suggesting aspartame could cause cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, and you may understand why concern about this artificial sweetener lingers.

The fact is, current evidence does not support this idea that aspartame could cause cancer, or that it is unsafe. According to the American Dietetic Association, aspartame’s safety is documented in more than 200 objective scientific studies. The Food and Drug Administration has concluded that aspartame is safe, and there are  no strong data out there to refute that.

In 2007, the most comprehensive look at the research was conducted, and the conclusion was, again, that aspartame is safe. An important caveat to that research – it was paid for by the company Ajinomoto, which makes aspartame.

Thing is, about 6,000 products – including soft drinks, gum, candy, pudding, yogurt – all contain aspartame. When a product is so widely used, it often happens that there is some scientific scrutiny. So I would imagine this debate and these studies will continue for quite a while.

You asked if I use artificial sweeteners myself. Fortunately for my waistline, I do not have an affinity for sweets, so whether the sugar is real or artificial, I tend to steer clear. I favor fresh fruit to get my sweet fix, and fruit ultimately leaves me feeling fuller.

Now, if you do choose to use aspartame, keep in mind moderation. The FDA recommends a daily intake of no more than 50 mg of aspartame per kilogram of body weight. That amounts to 22 cans of diet soda for a 175-pound man, and 15 cans for a 120 pound woman.

And you want to exercise that moderation for any ingredient in your diet. Don't go overboard with the sugar-free foods - make sure to include low-fat foods, natural sugars, and fats to your diet. Skewing your diet in any one direction will create an unhealthy imbalance.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.