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Aspartame exposures in the US population: Demonstration of a novel approach for exposure estimates to food additives using NHANES data

Abstract

Background

Exposure to food additives is widespread but up-to-date and accurate intake estimates are rarely available. The safety of the food additive aspartame is the subject of recent controversy and intake estimates for this nonnutritive sweetener are typically derived from surrogates such as diet soda consumption.

Objective

We describe an approach for developing nationally representative dietary exposure estimates for food additives that combines intake from dietary recalls and grocery purchasing information.

Methods

We combined NielsenIQ Homescan Consumer Panel purchasing data with the USDA Global Branded Food Products database and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to estimate aspartame intake and prevalence of consumption for the US population. We examined points of departure for aspartame from CompTox Chemicals Dashboard to provide context for exposures and potential effects.

Results

Mean, 90th percentile, and 95th percentile aspartame intake estimates are below the acceptable daily intake (50 mg/kg/day) and are lower than estimates from previous decades. Groups with the highest aspartame intakes are non-Hispanic whites, 60- to 69-year-olds, and individuals on diabetic diets. Aspartame exposure is highly prevalent (62.6%) in the US including sensitive populations such as pregnant women and children.

Impact statement

Exposure to the widely consumed food additive aspartame is not well characterized, and concerns about potential health effects remain despite assurances of safety when consumed under conditions of intended use. This work provides current intake estimates for the US population with important comparisons across demographic groups and individuals on special diets. The approach includes ingredient statement and grocery purchasing data to capture all aspartame-containing products, beyond diet soda, in intake estimates. This framework also has the potential for application to other food ingredients.

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Fig. 1: Overview of major databases and linkage steps.
Fig. 2: Distributions of natural log-transformed aspartame intakes from NHANES 2017–2020 and points of departure (PODs) (mg/kg/day) from neurotoxicity and developmental/reproductive toxicity study types from CompTox, excluding acute and short-term studies.

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Data availability

The NHANES dataset analyzed is publicly available and can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes/index.htm (accessed April 12, 2024). The USDA Global Branded Food Products Database dataset analyzed is publicly available and can be found at https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/ (accessed April 12, 2024). While NielsenIQ Datasets are not publicly available, the dataset generated using NielsenIQ Homescan datasets is available in the Supplemental Information.

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Acknowledgements

Researcher(s)’ own analyses calculated (or derived) based in part on data from NielsenIQ Consumer LLC and marketing databases provided through the NielsenIQ Datasets at the Kilts Center for Marketing Data Center at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The conclusions drawn from the NielsenIQ data are those of the researcher(s) and do not reflect the views of NielsenIQ. NielsenIQ is not responsible for, had no role in, and was not involved in analyzing and preparing the results reported herein.

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LR designed and conducted analyses, wrote the first draft, and revised the manuscript. BH advised on statistical analyses, and KN advised on point-of-departure analyses. BH and KN reviewed, provided comments, and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to L. Elizabeth Riess or Keeve E. Nachman.

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Riess, L.E., Huynh, B.Q. & Nachman, K.E. Aspartame exposures in the US population: Demonstration of a novel approach for exposure estimates to food additives using NHANES data. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-024-00678-7

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