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Is Aspartame Really Worse than Other Artificial Sweeteners?

PepsiCo is bringing Equal sugar back to some of its beverages. So we asked an expert if that's as big a deal as everyone seems to think it is.

Earlier this week, PepsiCo announced it was putting aspartame (what's in those blue Equal sugar packets) back into some of their diet drinks just a year after pulling the artificial sweetener over consumer concerns about safety, AFP reports. Why the change of heart? Fizzling soda consumption, particularly diet cola.  

Diet Pepsi's sales plummeted 5.8 percent in 2015 and about 11 percent during the first quarter of 2016, according to data from Beverage Digest.

Back in August 2015, the food and beverage titan replaced aspartame-sweetened Diet Pepsi with a blend of sucralose, a.k.a. Splenda, and another artificial sweetener called acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) because Americans were alarmed by studies which linked aspartame to cancer. (Ironically enough, newer research done on mice suggested Splenda may cause cancerous tumors and leukemia.) 

Now, however, consumers are willing to mix up their artificial sweeteners and PepsiCo is all too willing to oblige. Aspartame will be reintroducted later this year in Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend and PepsiMAX as PepsiZeroSugar; while Diet Pepsi will remain sweetened with sucralose and Ace-K.

So, with all this back-and-forth, it begs the question: Is one really worse than the other? 

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"Whether your taste buds prefer a sweet packet of pink (saccharin), blue (aspartame), or yellow (sucralose), these artificial sweeteners have all been proven safe in acceptable daily intakes (ADIs)," says food and nutrition expert Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD. Aspartame and sucralose are both approved for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration; and the FDA also sets an ADI for each sweetener, which is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over a lifetime. For aspartame, the FDA has set the ADI at 50 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight. 

"It would take a mound of sweet packets to even come close to the established ADI’s," McDaniel says. "For example, research shows you could down 17 cans of 12-ounce diet soda or 97 aspartame packets without seeing adverse affects. Even dieters with high intakes of artificial sweeteners don’t come close to these extreme amounts." 

The American Cancer Society has similar figures. Aspartame's ADI of 50 would be 3,750mg per day; so for a typical adult weighing about 165 pounds to go over the recommended level, he'd have to drink more than 19 12-ounce cans of diet soda a day (each has about 192mg of aspartame) or eat about 107 packets of aspartame (one packet has about 35mg). Now, that's not to say that artificial sweeteners are "healthy." Since they are intensely sweeter than table sugar, they can kick-start your sweet tooth and have you craving more sugary, processed foods. Plus, they are still chemicals and as the studies that sparked the debate prove, we really don't know the longterm impact this stuff can have on our overall health.

As for the argument to go the more natural route and sip sweeteners such as honey, agave, and white/brown sugar, McDaniel says you have to consider current advice to limit added sugars to no more than 50g per day on a 2,000-calorie diet. Since there are 69 grams of sugar in one 20oz bottle of Pepsi, you'd be over that limit before you finished the drink. 

And if you're wondering whether it makes a difference to drink diet or regular soda, it probably doesn't—not in the grand scheme of things. "Soda’s nutritional resume falls short, and I recommend my clients limit soda and choose health-promoting beverages like water, tea, or coffee instead," McDaniel says. So if you're having a soda once in a while, just choose the one you like the taste of best. Just use your best judgment and limit how often you knock back the stuff. 

The bottom line: Per McDaniel, artificial sweeteners are artificial sweeteners and though we don’t fully know the long-term health effects each can have, we do know that the FDA says they’re safe in the “right” amounts. You should probably limit your diet soda consumption regardless, but when you do drink it, or use artificial sweeteners in other drinks or foods, just go with the one that you like best or suits your needs. "The choice of sweeteners comes down to personal preference or the purpose of the sweetener," McDaniel says. "Artificial sweeteners have their unique flavor and don’t all have the same functionality; for instance, you can easily bake with sucralose, but not aspartame." 

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