I recently received a forward from a family member warning against "aspartame poisoning." Usually I don't respond to forwarded email, but this one piqued my interest as a nutritionist. With so much myth and misinformation floating around on the web, I figured I would dissect the warning and separate the fact from the fiction.

Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener that has been approved as a food additive by Health Canada since 1981. Chemically, it is created by bonding together the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid with methanol. Before approval is granted to any food additive, Health Canada rigorously scrutinizes both toxicological tests in laboratory animals and clinical studies in humans for any suspected adverse health reactions. As per the provisions of the Food and Drug Regulations, Aspartame poses no health hazard when consumed by healthy individuals.

However, despite Health Canada's past and ongoing critical evaluation of the safety of aspartame consumption, many unwarranted negative allegations remain in circulation. Let me lay some to rest: There is no current study in the literature that significantly proves aspartame is dangerous for diabetics; causes cancer and brain tumors; or causes seizures and allergic reactions. Further, there is no substantial proof that the methanol in aspartame is toxic and is associated with health problems such as lupus and blindness.

As new studies come forward questioning aspartame's safety, Health Canada makes it its protocol to review and assess any new data presented. One recent study published by the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Science looking at the long-term effects of aspartame consumption in rats raised concerns about the levels of aspartame exposure. Health Canada carefully analyzed this study and found that the reported findings linking aspartame consumption to adverse health effects in rats were not strong enough to warrant a change in the current restrictions on the use of aspartame by healthy humans.

The most significant side effect linked to aspartame occurs to only a small portion of the population. One of the by-products of aspartame metabolism, the amino acid phenylalanine, is a proven health hazard to those born with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder in which individuals lack the enzyme necessary for the amino acid to be completely metabolized. If left untreated, those suffering from PKU may develop problems with brain development, leading to seizures and possible delayed mental development.

Scientists in the Food Directorate of Health Canada have established an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for aspartame. It has been established that the average Canadian consumes far less than this amount. Aspartame is globally recognized by the scientific community and most national regulatory bodies to be safe for human consumption. New findings are regularly reviewed and held up to scrutiny, but no adverse effects have yet been observed, even when humans were exposed to higher intakes than the established ADI.

Nonetheless, some people may worry about possible effects that have not been found, or may simply want something more "natural" to sweeten their food without all the calories of sugar or honey. Such options do also exist, for example the herb stevia.

Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)