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The Sweet Surprise: The Accidental Invention of Aspartame

How Aspartame Was Accidentally Invented

Whether you know what aspartame is or not, you have probably drunk or eaten a product or two that contains it. This ubiquitous artificial sweetener is found in diet sodas and sugar-free substitutes. Imagine those colorful packets of Equal or NutraSweet lining the bowl at your local diner-that’s aspartame.
Aspartame, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, is now commonly used as a low-calorie alternative to sugar to sweeten coffee, tea, soda, and other beverages. Artificial sweeteners have often been magnets for controversy, and aspartame was no different. There was a lengthy FDA review process leading up to its eventual approval in the early 1980s due to safety concerns about the product. According to Harvard University’s “The History of Aspartame,” the FDA even established a panel in 1979 to investigate a number of potential risks the food additive might pose, including causing brain damage or tumors.
While they concluded that aspartame did not cause brain damage, the panel could not completely rule out the possibility that aspartame might cause cancer and recommended more research before approval. FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. overruled the panel and approved aspartame on July 24, 1981, citing errors made by the panel in recommending further research.

Aspartame’s unintended discovery

The discovery of aspartame was an unintended consequence of a scientist named James Schlatter’s attempt to develop an anti-ulcer drug in 1965. Depending on your view of aspartame, you might consider this discovery to be either a fluke or an accident.
Schlatter, a chemist for G.D. Searle & Company (now a subsidiary of Pfizer), was mixing two amino acids called aspartic acid and phenylalanine when he stuck his finger in the experimental concoction and licked it. Perhaps not the brightest moment for a scientist entering uncharted territory, but in retrospect, his lapse ultimately paid off when he realized the substance tasted sweet (and didn’t harm him). The result was the accidental invention of aspartame, which was described as a sweetener in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1969.
After the FDA Commissioner approved aspartame for commercial use as a sweetener in 1981, it was later marketed and distributed under the more familiar brand names, including Equal and NutraSweet. Aspartame was initially approved as a table sugar substitute, tablet, and additive in cereals, drink mixes, and other products. By July 1983, the FDA had approved its use in soft drinks.
The serendipitous invention of aspartame illustrates the serendipitous nature of scientific discovery. Sometimes breakthrough innovations and advances occur when researchers stray from their original goals. In the case of James Schlatter, his search for an anti-ulcer drug led to the creation of a revolutionary sugar substitute that has become a staple in the food and beverage industry.
Aspartame’s journey to widespread use has not been without controversy. The FDA’s thorough review process and the concerns raised by the committee underscore the cautious approach taken to ensure the safety of artificial sweeteners. Despite the initial concerns, aspartame has been deemed safe for consumption by regulatory authorities around the world.
Today, aspartame remains a popular choice for people who want to reduce their sugar intake while still enjoying sweet-tasting foods and beverages. Its high sweetness potency allows for minimal use, making it a calorie-conscious option for those on low-calorie diets or managing conditions such as diabetes.
As with any food additive, it’s important to consume aspartame in moderation and within recommended guidelines. While it provides a sweet taste without the sugar, individuals should be mindful of their overall dietary choices and consider a balanced approach to nutrition.
The accidental invention of aspartame is a reminder that scientific breakthroughs can occur unexpectedly, leading to innovations that shape our daily lives. It is a testament to human curiosity and the quest for knowledge that continues to drive advances in many fields, including food science.
In summary, James Schlatter’s accidental discovery of aspartame has had a significant impact on the food and beverage industry. From its humble beginnings as an unintended consequence in a laboratory, aspartame has become a widely recognized and used artificial sweetener. Its sweetness, low-calorie nature and wide availability have made it a popular choice for people seeking sugar alternatives. While controversy surrounded its initial approval, extensive research and regulatory approvals have confirmed its safety for consumption. Aspartame’s serendipitous invention is a testament to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery and the potential for breakthrough innovations to arise from unexpected circumstances.


What is Aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is commonly used as a low-calorie alternative to sugar in a variety of foods and beverages.

How was aspartame accidentally invented?

Aspartame was accidentally invented in 1965 by a scientist named James Schlatter. He was trying to develop an anti-ulcer drug and discovered the sweet taste of a substance he was mixing, which turned out to be aspartame.

What were the safety concerns about aspartame?

During the FDA review process in the early 1980s, safety concerns were raised about potential risks associated with aspartame. These concerns included brain damage, tumors, and cancer. However, further research and evaluation led to its eventual approval for commercial use as a sweetener.

Who approved aspartame for commercial use?

Then FDA Commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes Jr. approved aspartame for commercial use as a sweetener on July 24, 1981. Despite concerns raised by an FDA-appointed panel, Commissioner Hayes overruled their recommendations and granted approval.

What are some of the brand names associated with aspartame?

Aspartame is marketed and sold under several brand names, including Equal and NutraSweet. These names are commonly associated with products that use aspartame as a sugar substitute.

Is aspartame safe to consume?

Yes, aspartame has been deemed safe for consumption by regulatory authorities around the world. Extensive research and evaluation has been conducted to ensure its safety. However, as with any food additive, it is important to consume aspartame in moderation and according to recommended guidelines.

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