Q: "I have come across some reports that say aspartame is terrible stuff, suggesting that it should be banned. Yet I have seen other reports that it is quite safe to use, unless you are allergic to it. What is the truth?"
Judy, via email
A: Websites abound that allege aspartame is a 'brain toxin' and is the cause of multiple sclerosis, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, brain tumours and diabetes, among many others. Virtually all of the information is anecdotal – stories from anonymous sources – and is scientifically questionable.
After saccharin and cyclamate, aspartame is one of the oldest sweeteners and has been extensively studied. In fact, because of these rumours, it has been re-examined in recent years.
When it was first approved in 1981, the FDA did an exhaustive study into its safety, testing it on humans and animals in amounts many times higher than an individual could consume in an average diet. Australia approved it one year later.
In Australia, the food authority has carried out two surveys (1994 and 2003) into consumption of sweeteners, especially amongst 'high consumers' and people with diabetes, and has never sounded a warning about aspartame. At present, levels of intake are well below the acceptable daily intake. An adult would have to consume 20 cans of diet soft drink a day to exceed the maximum intake. So there's no evidence to link aspartame to multiple sclerosis, lupus or Alzheimer's Disease. With the exception of a few very mild side effects, aspartame appears to be quite safe and isn't among common allergens like milk or fish.