Sunday, May 31, 2009

Aspartame… it’s not just in diet foods anymore

Remember when aspartame (brand name: NutraSweet) first came out? It promised to have none of the aftertaste of other artificial sweeteners on the market, and virtually zero calories. You could lose weight by simply swapping aspartame for sugar… in your coffee, tea, soft drinks and so on. A drawback was that aspartame wasn’t stable and lost its sweetness over time, but that was merely a minor inconvenience. At least the product was safe (we were told), having been approved by those guardians of public health, the FDA (in the US) and the Food Standards Agency (in the UK).

However, if you do a bit of reading, you’ll find there are a lot of concerns about the safety of this supposedly innocuous sweetener, and the road to its approval… well let’s just say those pesky bumps were ironed out by some pretty high-profile names. A 2005 article which appeared in The Guardian detailed some aspartame concerns:

Safety of artificial sweetener called into question by MP

There is also this very revealing video on aspartame produced by a Fox news station in Washington DC, which was never shown outside its local broadcast area.

A short article on aspartame reactions can be found here.

As for the claims that aspartame helps people lose weight, a study at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that people who drink diet soft drinks don’t lose weight, they gain it.

If you’ve decided to avoid aspartame, it’s not as straightforward as you may think.

Aspartame is now added to a whole raft of food products, both diet AND “regular” ones which also contain sugar. You’ll also find it in products that you may never imagine would have sweeteners in them at all, like crisps and cider.

So what’s a would-be aspartame avoider to do?

1. Look for the words “no added sugar”, “sugar-free”, “diet” or “light” on packaging. This MAY indicate the presence of artificial sweeteners. However, some products which are sweetened naturally may also have the words “no added sugar”, so there is no need to avoid ALL products labelled as such.

2. Don’t assume that just because a product is sugar-sweetened, it is free from artificial sweeteners. An increasing number of products are sweetened both with sugar AND artificial sweeteners. One product commonly containing both sugar and aspartame is chewing gum. In fact, it is now quite difficult to find any chewing gum without aspartame.

Another product containing both sugar and aspartame is Robinsons Fruit Squash.

Here is a picture of “no sugar added” Robinsons Fruit Squash. Note the presence of the artificial sweeteners aspartame and saccharin in the ingredients list.

Robinsons squash with aspartame

Now here is a picture of “regular” Robinsons Fruit Squash. It not only contains sugar, as you would expect, but ALSO contains aspartame and saccharin.

Robinsons squash with sugar AND aspartame

3. Be aware that the statements “no artificial flavours” and “no artificial colours” have nothing to do with whether a product has artificial sweeteners like aspartame in it.

4. Also be aware that a product labelled “suitable for vegetarians” may still contain aspartame and/or other artificial sweeteners.

5. Don’t assume that all products in a health food shop are free from aspartame. They probably aren’t.

6. Look for products which are certified organic; such products are prohibited from containing aspartame. Click here and here for more info on organic standards.

7. Be aware that some products which wouldn’t logically contain sweeteners, may contain them. As an example, the following flavours of Walkers crisps contain aspartame: prawn cocktail, Sensations Thai sweet chilli, Sensations caramelised onion & sweet balsamic vinegar.

8. Realise that some vitamins and medicines contain aspartame. It seems that current UK laws require that this be mentioned on the labelling.

9. Read the ingredients list. This encompasses all of the above guidelines into one easy-to-remember one. For most products, the ingredients list will indicate the presence of aspartame, which may also be listed as “NutraSweet” or by its E-number, E951.

10. Be very careful with alcoholic beverages, which do NOT have to list ingredients unless alcohol content is UNDER 1.2%. There appears to be no requirement under the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) guide “Labelling requirements for alcoholic drinks” to list artificial sweeteners. However, the FSA guidelines on aspartame labelling state:

As well as the general requirement for foods to carry a list of food additives and other ingredients, products containing sweeteners such as aspartame must show the statement ‘with sweetener(s)’ on the label close to the main product name. Foods that contain both sugar and sweetener must carry the statement ‘with sugar and sweetener(s)’. In addition, foods that contain aspartame must be labelled with a warning ‘contains a source of phenylalanine’.

It would appear that alcoholic beverages which contain sweeteners therefore do have to indicate this on the label.

Another point on cider: you may have read something about the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which “is an independent, voluntary, consumer organisation which campaigns for real ale, real pubs and consumer rights”. Although CAMRA’s Definition of Real Draught Cider & Perry states that the beverages may contain neither added flavourings nor colourings, this is not, unfortunately, the case with sweeteners:

Sweetener may be added to fully fermented Cider/Perry to make it sweet or medium.

Therefore, cider brands jumping on the CAMRA bandwagon are not necessarily free from aspartame or other artificial sweeteners.

If you want to avoid aspartame, you’ll need to become a label-reader. You may have to squint to read those tiny ingredients lists, but at least you won’t be buying blindly.

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