Jamie Oliver recently shared his idea of labelling high sugar foods with the number of tea-spoons of sugar contained in a drink to allow parents to make better decisions on their children’s behalf when deciding what to provide as an occasional treat. He estimates Ribena to have a shocking 13 tea spoons in half a litre bottle, just behind regular Pepsi with a staggering 14 in half a litre.
The risks of a high sugar diet are well established. They include an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and heart-disease. Whilst the public is divided on legal reforms surrounding the taxation of high sugar foods, Jamie can only be commended for increasing public awareness in this area. Whilst responses are largely positive, some are worried and greatly highlight the need for a better standard of nutritional education. One Facebook user didn’t disapprove per se about Jamie’s efforts but expressed an issue critical in her mind “I want them to inform people of the dangers of false sugars like aspartame! Promoting diet drinks to children in the way they do is dangerous”. This would perhaps not be so worrying if it hadn’t garnered 543 seals of approval, in the form of Facebook ‘likes’ from those presumably interested in their children’s nutrition.
However it is not just that a number of Facebook users hold this view, the lack of education about Aspartame is endemic: students have the university have been told by their tutor that aspartame is harmful. Furthermore certain mathematics students, who trained to solve problems of the highest complexity, biology students educated in the relevant fields, at the University of Nottingham have taken the harmful properties of this sweetener on hearsay. Unlike the science behind it, the companies who utilise this product do pander to our collective misinformation; in 2007 Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer’s announced they would stop using aspartame in their own label products. In April of this year Pepsi also buckled under the pressure that has aggregated around this controversial product.
What are the facts about Aspartame?
It is a compound that is formed from the combination of the amino acids L-aspartic acid, Phenylalanine with a methyl ester added to it. There’s no obvious reason this should be harmful, amino acids are extremely important as they are what make up all the proteins in our body, they are in all the fruit, vegetables and meat that we eat. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sugar (meaning you need 200 times less to get the same taste), and containing only about 4kcal (colloquially described as calories) per gram, it seems like a great way to get sweet tasting food without any of the health risks. However, its benefits are no guarantee of its safety, and in science the final arbiter is observation and experimentation. In 1965, the sweet quality Aspartame was discovered by accident by James M.Schattler who licked his finger during an experiment, it was patented and in 1993, after 28 years it was approved for use in carbonated drinks and baking goods. In 1994 it gained EU wide approval, in 1996, a full 31 years after the accidental discovery the FDA (U.S Food and Drug Administration) lifted all restrictions on what food it could be used in. These 31 years involved numerous studies, some convened by the company, others by independent bodies including the CDC; a Public Board of Inquiry (PBOI) was convened by the FDA. In 2002 European Food safety authority reviewed the available data and concluded that Aspartame remains safe to consume.
Are there risks with aspartame?
Yes. If you have a genetic disease that occurs in 1 in 14300 new-borns in the UK, called Phenylketonuria, which results in the inability to metabolise phenylalanine, the phenylalanine will build up to toxic levels very quickly. However, infants who are identified to have this condition have special dietary requirements from birth, requiring special milk as even human breast milk as a main diet would contain too much phenylalanine. Ignoring this can result in serious brain-damage and eventually death. It is not a medical condition you will discover from a surreptitious diet Sprite one afternoon.
Aspartame is one of the most tested compounds in the food industry, and although it has been the target of hoaxes, self-proclaimed natural health experts and even an entirely discredited study, no scientific evidence of harm has ever been presented for an average healthy person. Although there are other medical arguments against excessive consumption of fizzy drinks, aspartame is not something to invest any effort in trying to avoid. It could be argued that it allows us to enjoy our favourite fizzy drinks without a well-established increased risk of heart-disease, obesity and diabetes and deserves to be thought of as a meaningful discovery as opposed to a healthcare pariah.