Aspartame is an artificial, non-carbohydrate (calorie-free) sweetener which is widely used in all foods labeled “sugar-free” or “calorie-free” such as most diet sodas and sugar-free desserts.
Taste wise, Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar and its sweetness lasts longer than sugar’s.
Aspartame Was Discovered By Accident
Like Viagra, the artificial sweetener Aspartame was discovered by accident. In 1965, James M. Schlatter, an unassuming chemist, was hard at work at G.D. Searle and Company when he accidentally contaminated his bare hand with a white powder chemically made up of two amino acids and one carbon atom. Mr. Schlatter had synthesized this white powder during his work on a new anti-ulcer medicine which never came to be.
Luckily, Mr. Schlatter wasn’t an avid hand-washer. So, later that night, Mr. Schlatter was relaxing at home and reading a book when he licked his index finger in order to flip a page and noticed that his finger tasted extremely sweet. Thus, the artificial sweetener industry was born.
What Is Aspartame Made Of?
Chemically, Aspartame is made up of the two amino acids (Aspartic acid and Phenylalanine) and a molecule containing a carbon atom. Since its discovery in 1965 this simple chemical formula has sparked a series of intense debates regarding its safety mainly because of the way it metabolizes within the human body.
Aspartic acid, the first amino acid found in Aspartame is a non-essential amino acid found in all types of dietary proteins. This means that when we eat a piece of chicken or drink a glass of milk we are consuming a certain quantity of Aspartic acid as well. The debate regarding this amino acid, however, stems from the fact that it is also a powerful neurotransmitter. Therefore, some scientists speculate that over-consumption of it, via artificial sweeteners, may lead to abnormal brain functions and issues such as headaches, migraines and even depression and/or high anxiety.
Phenylalanine, the second amino acid found in Aspartame is an essential amino acid, meaning that we can only ingest it through artificial dietary sources. This is good news for most health conscious people who wish to avoid such compounds and those suffering from a rare disease called Phenylketonuria. Those born with this disease can’t properly break down Phenylalanine. Thus, the buildup of this amino acid in their system can lead to a host of health issues including brain damage.
The main item of concern regarding Aspartame is the single carbon atom attached to the end of the molecule. The problem is that this molecule separates from the amino acids in the small intestine and forms a single molecule of Methanol. Though large quantities of Methanol are extremely harmful because the body breaks Methanol down into waste products that contain the embalming fluid formaldehyde, scientists are still debating the safety of the small amounts of Methanol delivered to the system via Aspartame.
Photo courtesy of: Steve Snodgrass