Aspartame: Artifice and the Science of Sweet

Allison MacLachlan

Allison MacLachlan

Aspartame has become an extremely popular artificial sweetener since its entry into the American market in 1981. Humans have an evolutionary preference for sweet tastes, and artificial sweeteners became a mainstream alternative to cane sugar in the 20th century for people looking to cut calories. Saccharin and cyclamates, both discovered accidentally in early chemistry labs, set the scientific precedent for low-calorie sweeteners and also built the consumer base that would lead to aspartame’s rise after its own accidental discovery in 1965. This thesis takes a journalistic look at how artifice came to satisfy the human sweet tooth. Drawing on expert interviews, scientific papers, historical accounts and congressional records, it also examines some of the health complaints like headaches and seizures that have been attributed to aspartame’s breakdown products, such as phenylalanine. Even after extensive FDA testing has found little scientific proof for many of these claims, controversy and uncertainty about aspartame persist. There are also new challenges: researchers are now investigating the idea that consuming diet drinks may actually contribute to weight gain. At the same time, as obesity rates climb and schools and cities look to ban calorie-dense sodas, many public health experts welcome aspartame because it poses a less clear-cut risk than sugar.

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