When was the last time you drank 19 cans of diet pop in one day?
I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and say never.
You may think that seems like a ridiculous question, but it’s based on a little thing called acceptable daily intake (ADI) set by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, must be tested for safety and approved by the FDA before being used in any food, drink or medication. In some cases, artificial sweeteners are more thoroughly researched than medications currently on the market. Aspartame alone has been studied over 200 times since its initial approval in 1981.
Once approved, an ADI is set for each sweetener, which is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day throughout a person’s lifetime. It’s a number set by first determining the highest intake found to have no harmful effects in lifetime animal studies. The bar is then placed even higher, with the actual ADI for humans being set at a conservative one percent of this number.
Following this process, the ADI for aspartame was set at 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg/day).
Putting that into perspective, a person weighing 150 pounds (68 kg) would have to consume more than 3,400 mg of aspartame—equal to approximately 19 cans of diet pop—every day over a lifetime to see potential harmful effects.
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Here’s where I should note that while not all sugar-free products contain aspartame, it’s still one of the most popular artificial sweeteners out there. As a tabletop sweetener, it’s sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. And some examples of products made with aspartame include: diet pop, sugar-free ice cream, diet fruit juice, gum, yogurt and sugar-free candy.
The odds of you getting your daily dose of aspartame from diet pop alone are slim. However, the FDA estimates that if all the added sugar in an average person’s diet were replaced by aspartame, it would result in an exposure of about 8 to 9 mg/kg/day. That’s still significantly lower than the 50 mg/kg/day that has been determined to be safe for human consumption.
So, what exactly is aspartame?
The ingredients in aspartame are aspartic acid and phenylalanine—both of which are big, science-y names for naturally occurring amino acids that happen to taste super sweet together (200 times sweeter than sugar, to be exact). When digested, aspartame breaks down into these two amino acids and a small amount of methanol, a compound that is naturally found in foods like fruits and vegetables.
Aspartic acid is an amino acid made by your body, while phenylalanine is one you need to get from foods like meat, fish, eggs and dairy because your body doesn’t make it.
It’s this latter ingredient that tends to cause some confusion because products containing aspartame must carry a warning alerting people with a rare genetic disorder, Phenylketonuria (PKU), to the presence of phenylalanine. While people diagnosed with PKU are unable to properly metabolize this amino acid, people without this condition need not worry.
While my recommendation will always be replacing regular pop with water first, you can now feel confident knowing the occasional diet pop or sweetener packet in your morning coffee poses you no harm.