The artificial sweetener aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is widely consumed in large quantities–diet sodas contain 140-185mg per 12 oz., so a person drinking a lot of diet soda may consume a gram a day. The FDA recommends 40mg per kg body weight as a safe daily dose–about 2 grams per day for a average sized person.
In the human gut aspartame breaks down into three components: two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methanol. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, being amino acids, are a normal part of the human diet. Methanol is absorbed from the gut and converted by the liver to into formaldehyde and formic acid, both nasty but non-specific poisons. In the small amounts formed from aspartame they are thought to not be dangerous. Some foods, some normal body processes, and alcohol consumption produce methanol, though I don’t have figures as to how much.
There has been some controversy over whether aspartame is safe. There have been a few studies showing some cancer risk in animals, three recent mouse studies from Soffritti et. al. being the most convincing. Any cancer risk is thought to come from the methanol. Recent studies in animals seem to running about 10:1 no cancer:cancer. As aspartame has been in food for thirty years, there have been some large human studies, and none of them show increased cancer due to eating aspartame.
The other concern brought up is whether the phenylalanine and aspartic acid that aspartame breaks down into have an effect on the nervous system. In addition to being used for making protein, these amino acids are also feedstock for making catecholamine neurotransmitters. There is some evidence that a large ingestion of these two amino acids alone might throw off normal neurotransmitter levels. It’s not clear what, if any, effect this has on human brains–it clearly has no striking consequence. Any effect is of course relative–aspartame is often consumed with caffeine, a substance that clearly effects brain function. :)
This 2008 review article makes a number of alarmist suggestions but has almost no actual evidence. It’s a very odd article. A large human dose of aspartame is about 1 gram a day. The RDA for protein consumption is 0.8 g / kg day, which contains about 2 grams of phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Not all foods have an even balance of amino acids, so animals must have fair ability to buffer a diet rich in one or another.
Aspartame has been well-studied and is safe. It is still being studied–it may turn out to be a very weak carcinogen, too weak to show up clearly in the studies so far. Or have a subtle effect that screws up the rare person’s brain. Risks are relative–aspartame is certainly much better for a person’s health than the sugar it replaces. On the other hand, you can’t go wrong drinking water.