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Aspartame and MS: Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for People With Multiple Sclerosis?

Posted on May 16, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

Despite rumors to the contrary, scientists say that moderate artificial sweetener consumption is not considered a risk to the health of humans. Similarly, there is no scientific evidence indicating that artificial sweeteners like aspartame cause multiple sclerosis (MS).

However, some people with MS wonder whether they should consume artificial sweeteners. “Has anyone had a reaction to artificial sweeteners?” one MyMSTeam member asked. Another said, “I have been drinking diet soda for years — even went off for six months — and had no change, no nothing to my MS.”

Read on to find out the essentials about artificial sweeteners and MS.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners, also called high-intensity or non-nutritive sweeteners, provide sweet flavor without adding nutritional value. They typically serve as a calorie-free or low-calorie sugar substitute and additive used in foods and beverages.

Artificial Sweeteners as Flavor and Food Additives

Sugar-free foods and beverages are a mainstay of many weight-loss diets, especially those that stress low carbohydrates. Artificial sweeteners also give people with health conditions like diabetes access to sweet foods and sweeteners without the potentially dangerous health consequences they risk if they ingest sugar.

Several artificial sweeteners are U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-approved or “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use as a flavor additive. Some artificial sweeteners are:

  • Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
  • Neotame (Newtame)
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low )
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

Aspartame tends to be the most controversial of the artificial sweeteners. (Saccharine ranks highly, too, as it was once considered a cancer-causing chemical, or carcinogen.) Actually, aspartame is among the most studied food additives, according to the FDA.

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe for Human Consumption?

Most research to assess artificial sweetener safety has come to a shared conclusion: Artificial sweetener use that doesn’t exceed the “acceptable daily intake” (ADI) does not pose a significant health risk to humans.

The ADI is the recommended amount of a substance the FDA says a person should consume each day. Scientists determine ADI based on research and safety data. The ADI for aspartame is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. (One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.) Put another way, a person weighing 132 pounds could stay within the ADI even if they drank 12 to 36 12-ounce cans of aspartame-sweetened diet sodas per day. (The range represents the number of 12-ounce drinks with the maximum allowed level of aspartame versus those that contain less than the max.)

Safety, Testing, and Approval of Artificial Sweeteners

Food additives, including artificial sweeteners, are strictly regulated by the FDA. This means before they can be used in foods and drinks sold in the United States, they must be proven safe and nontoxic. The approval process comprises several clinical studies and toxicology tests.

Is There a Connection Between Artificial Sweeteners and Multiple Sclerosis?

There is no published scientific evidence that suggests a causal link between aspartame and MS. The only overlap between them seems to be that two of aspartame’s sometime-cited side effects overlap with two of the same symptoms in MS. However, scores of other additives, foods, and beverages have the same overlapping side effects (as do countless drugs).

Artificial Sweeteners and MS Symptoms

One common aspartame myth is that artificial sweetener ingestion can cause side effects that are similar to MS symptoms. This falsehood is rather simple to debunk. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed 500 aspartame-related health complaints, scientists found that most reported side effects were mild (and these were common among a general population). As for any “complaints” (aka side effects)? Those included digestive problems (like gas, bloating, and cramping), dizziness, fatigue, headaches, mood changes, and sleeplessness. Aside from dizziness, which countless things can cause, there were no other MS symptoms on that list.

That said, it is true that around 90 percent of people with MS experience bladder issues as an MS symptom. And it’s also true that The National Association for Continence said multiple artificial sweeteners (aspartame among them) had been shown to affect bladder functionality “in limited animal studies.” However, any possible connection was downplayed at best. Further, bladder issues are not widely cited nor typically mentioned as a side effect for aspartame.

Who Should Not Have Artificial Sweeteners?

It’s impossible to say anything is absolutely safe. However, based on the collective data from existing clinical trials, the CDC and representatives from the FDA have said artificial sweeteners appear to be safe for those with MS.

If you have MS and one (or more) of the following health factors, however, you should avoid artificial sweeteners until you can get the all-clear/green light from your health care practitioner:

  • Those with a known allergy or sensitivity to aspartame or any of the other ingredients (or chemical byproducts) of the artificial sweetener.
  • People who have phenylketonuria (PKU), a hereditary condition in which the enzyme needed to break down phenylalanine, a sweetener byproduct, is missing.

Always speak to your neurologist if you have concerns about ingredients in your foods or beverages affecting your MS symptoms. Also contact them before you change your diet significantly.

Find Your Team

On MyMSTeam, the social network for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and their loved ones, more than 185,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share stories about life with MS.

Have you noticed any health impacts from using artificial sweeteners? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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