Aspartame Concerns: 5 Tips for Reducing Sweets Safely

Health & Wellness

Nutrition is key for mesothelioma patients. Weight loss and limited appetite are common side effects of primary mesothelioma treatments. Finding foods you enjoy and that help you sustain your strength during treatment and recovery are critical. 

People interested in reducing their sugar intake while still enjoying favorite sweet comfort foods, often turn to alternative sweeteners like aspartame. But recent headlines about its possible association with cancer have mesothelioma survivors and their families particularly concerned. 

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, as well as a joint committee of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO’s Expert Committee on Food Additives studied current research on aspartame. IARC and JECFA concluded that “based on limited evidence,” aspartame is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, states it found shortcomings in the research. With conflicting assessments from experts, people are left wondering which position is right? Given the importance of nutrition for mesothelioma survivors, what should patients do in light of these statements?

What Is Aspartame?

Aspartame is a chemical flavoring used to sweeten foods and beverages. It’s about 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

It’s found in diet soda, sugar free gum, sugar free jello and sugar free syrup. You can buy aspartame as NutraSweet, Equal or Sugar Twin.

Aspartame is appealing because you get a strong sweet taste of sugar without the calories. For mesothelioma patients with coexisting conditions such as diabetes, it’s especially attractive because you can still eat and drink sweet foods without having to worry about your blood sugar.  

But there is a cost. Your taste buds adapt to that “sugary” taste that leaves you feeling the need to always satisfy that flavor. There’s also a myth that sugar free drinks and foods are calorie free, but often they’re part of a processed food that contains a lot of calories.  

How Much Aspartame Is Considered Safe?

JECFA recommends an acceptable intake of 0-40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight for aspartame. For an adult weighing 70 kilograms or 155 pounds this totals up to 2,800 milligrams per day. 

If a can of Diet Coke contains approximately 200 milligrams, a person could theoretically drink up to 14 cans per day and still be within the safety limits. However, 14 cans is a large volume of empty calories.  

Soda can also contain caffeine and phosphoric acid, neither of which are recommended in large volumes. Diet soda is also linked to obesity, heart disease and, yes, even diabetes.  

What About Natural Sweeteners?

Natural sweeteners include honey, dates, maple syrup, coconut sugar, molasses and agave nectar. These are considered “healthier” because they’re not as processed. 

They contain antioxidants and some trace vitamins and minerals. If you’re using sugar to sweeten a food or drink, these are preferable to the more processed table sugar. 

But it’s important to note that we should all try and reduce the amount of sweeteners we use regardless of the type. Natural sweeteners contain just as many calories and have the same effect on our blood sugar as table sugar.

Tips for Mesothelioma Survivors

For people who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, special cautions should be taken. If you have a very sweet tooth and are using a lot of foods with artificial sweeteners, try and gradually cut down on the amount you use.

5 Tips for Reducing Sweeteners
  1. Drink Sparkling Water: Switch out sodas for sparkling water. Mix ½ cup pure fruit juice with sparkling water for an alternative sweet beverage.
  2. Eat Frozen Fruit: Frozen blueberries or grapes can be a refreshing treat in place of ice cream or popsicles. Fruits are naturally sweet and can work as a great alternative to traditional desserts whether frozen, fresh or dried.
  3. Retrain Taste Buds: Our taste buds need retraining and that takes time. Gradually reduce the sugar you add to your coffee or tea. If you normally take 3 teaspoons, cut back to 2 teaspoons and then eventually to 1 teaspoon.
  4. Compare Labels: Check food labels when buying foods such as bread, cereal, pasta sauces and even yogurt. Choose products with the least amount of added sugars.
  5. Add Some Spice: When baking – in addition to cutting sweeteners or sugar in the recipe by half or one third – add spices to intensify the flavor so you can enjoy your bakes without all the sugar.

Even if you’re within the 14 can daily soda limit, it’s wise to try and retrain your taste buds to need less sweetener.  Do it slowly. You won’t miss the sugar and that’s a sweet fact! 

As we discuss in our growing body of nutrition blogs, diet for mesothelioma patients should be focused on whole foods – whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and healthy fats. We want to be as protective as possible. Processed foods and highly sugared foods should be limited but can be enjoyed as an occasional treat.  

Artificial sweeteners can be used as part of a healthy diet in moderation.  For those with mesothelioma, take steps to limit your use as much as possible. Focus on a whole food approach. Processed foods and drinks should be thought of as occasional additions to the diet and not a daily need. It’s a challenge, though, to reduce sugar so take it one day at a time and your body will thank you!

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