Neotame is a sugar substitute that is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than regular table sugar. Like other artificial sweeteners, only a small amount of the substance is needed to be an effective flavor enhancer. In fact, this is what makes neotame of great interest to manufacturers of food products, since it is considerably less expensive to use as a sweetener than refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Manufactured by NutraSweet, neotame is part of the family of artificial sweeteners, which include sucralose, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and aspartame. The latter sugar substitute is also produced by NutraSweet and sold under the same name. In addition, neotame has a chemical structure more similar to aspartame than other synethic sweeteners, although it is considered more heat stable. In fact, it can be used in cooking and baking.
Since artificial sweeteners are considered food additives, they must meet with approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be made available to consumers. The FDA considered 113 safety studies conducted on animals and humans and determined that neotame is safe for human consumption in 2002. However, some health advocates have expressed concerns over the potential carcinogenic effects of all artificial sweeteners, including neotame. Of course, according to the manufacturer, the above-referenced studies provide ample evidence that neotame does not cause cancer.
Aside from being able to enjoy sweetened foods without adding carbohydrates or calories to the diet, neotame may provide benefits to those with certain medical conditions without further compromising their health. For instance, neotame does not impact glucose levels in diabetics. This product is also considered safe for people with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder in which the body lacks sufficient levels of the enzyme, phenylalanine hydroxylase. This is due to the presence of 3,3-dimethylbutyl in neotame, which suppresses proteolysis activity and, subsequently, the production and release of the amino acid, phenylalanine. In addition, neotame does not promote tooth decay.
In addition to use as a table sweetener, neotame has been approved for use in various processed foods, including pudding and gelatin mixes, canned fruits, fruit juices, jams, jellies, and syrup. It may also be found in baked goods, frozen desserts, soft drinks and chewing gum. Typically, many of these products are labeled as being sugar-less or sugar-free.
Safety concerns over neotame stem from several issues. For one thing, some opponents contend that the human-based safety studies presented to the FDA were few in number and all of the study subjects were employees of the manufacturer. Some groups also maintain that artificial sweeteners have an addictive quality, although there is little, if any, documentation to substantiate this claim. However, it is apparent from the medical literature that several study subjects have reported mild to moderate allergic reactions, most notably headaches. While both short and long-term study findings indicate that neotame does not present significant toxicity, carcinogenic, or mutagenic effects, there is evidence to suggest that a small percentage of the population may experience allergic reactions and should avoid using it.