Diet Coke fanatics have been screaming, crying, and throwing up since aspartame, the sweetening agent in the soda, was declared “possibly carcinogenic to humans” last week. The new, worryingly worded designation comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization responsible for cancer research. The artificial sweetener is used in almost every low- or no-calorie food, such as sugar-free chewing gums, sugar-free Jell-O, and (notoriously) diet sodas. Now consumers, especially those rabid Diet Coke fans, are worried for their health (others have vowed to drink Diet Coke forever). But is aspartame actively dangerous?

This isn’t the first time there’s been a scare around aspartame. As the subject of countless studies, aspartame has been scrutinized by both the public and scientists since it was first synthesized in the mid-1960s. It was approved for use in dry foods by the Food and Drug Administration in 1974. Then that approval was revoked by the FDA in 1980. Then the FDA reinstated the approval in 1981. In fact, according to the FDA, aspartame is one of the most examined food additives on the market.

Yes, aspartame has a sordid past. (Who among us doesn’t?) To understand the enigma that is aspartame, it’s important to understand the twists and turns that regulatory agencies have taken while trying to chase down its health risk. Today, the FDA states on its website that it deems aspartame safe and continues to evaluate new research data around its safety. It is “safe for the general population” when consumed within the FDA’s acceptable daily intake level of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

The short of it: Although the additive may not be downright healthy, chances are it won’t be the cause of your demise.

Aspartame had a shady start

Like many momentous scientific discoveries (penicillin, Botox, pineapple on pizza, probably), aspartame was discovered by accident. As the story goes, James Schlatter synthesized aspartame in a lab in 1965 while researching anti-ulcer drugs. He discovered it was sweet when a drop of it landed on his finger and he licked it off—something I have to imagine they tell you to definitely not do on day one of scientist school. Regardless, Schlatter discovered aspartame was 200 times sweeter than traditional sugar, and thus history was made.

In 1974, aspartame was approved for use as a tabletop sweetener and in chewing gum, breakfast cereals, and dry bases for foods. Things get a little corrupt-seeming and murky from there: As the Huffington Post reveals, after concerns were raised on the initial research behind aspartame safety, three independent scientists on an FDA Board of Inquiry confirmed in 1980 that aspartame “might induce brain tumors,” leading to a nationwide ban for aspartame use. The next year, Donald Rumsfeld, the then CEO of aspartame patent holder G.D. Searle, became part of the transition team to the newly elected President Ronald Reagan.

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