Diet Dilemma? What’s the Catch?

While stopping by my former workplace just a few days ago I came face to face yet again with one of my most hated conspiracy theories/pseudosciences. A friend and ex workmate of mine Drew asked whether I still suffer from the regular headaches that plagued me while I worked there. “Why yes” I replied and briefly mentioned some medical avenues I’m exploring to treat them. His follow up was “because I was speaking to Troy the other day and he was telling me about how diet coke can lead all sorts of problems like headaches”. Drew went on to mention how the artificial sweetener aspartame has been linked to all sorts of problems and cited a study on rats as evidence. Now Drew is a nice guy, he was genuinely interested in what I had to say and seemed to take a lot on board. The Aspartame scare was nothing new to me; in fact it is one of the most common examples of scientific paranoia that I encounter in day to day life. Let’s take a look at some of the claims from aspartame critics and evaluate the scientific evidence. I could never dream of covering such a broad topic in real depth but I wish to draw attention to a few main points.

I’ll start with a very brief and non-technical overview of aspartame. Discovered in 1965 aspartame’s chemical name is aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester. It is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners world wide and is only applied in relatively small amounts (it’s around 180 times sweeter than sugar). If you’re a fan of diet drinks like Diet Coke, Pepsi Max, Sprite Zero etc. then you almost certainly consume aspartame on a regular basis.

Aspartame sits in big pile along with mercury-amalgam fillings, vaccines, fluoridated water, food from the microwave, bottled water and many other byproducts of science that are criticized heavily despite having been studied intensively and proven to be safe for regular use. A literature review examining the body of peer-reviewed research surrounding aspartame published in the journal of “Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology” found the following:

“The safety testing of aspartame has gone well beyond that required to evaluate the safety of a food additive. When all the research on aspartame, including evaluations in both the premarketing and postmarketing periods, is examined as a whole, it is clear that aspartame is safe, and there are no unresolved questions regarding its safety under conditions of intended use.”

Such clear and direct language is unusual for scientific papers and speak to just how resolved this issue is (or should be). This review was no mere pilot study or single test group. It was a review of 20 years of research into the affects of aspartame in human subjects.
As much of a conclusion that it was these findings were nothing new. This article from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) dates from 1985 and even 25 years ago had this to say in it’s findings:

“Available evidence suggests that consumption of aspartame by normal humans is safe and is not associated with serious adverse health effects. Individuals who need to control their phenylalanine intake should handle aspartame like any other source of phenylalanine.”

While not as strongly worded as the 2002 review it can be seen that no body of evidence ever seems to have implicated aspartame as a major health concern. To back these findings up, a great number of credible scientific and public health institutions show complete support for the safety of aspartame. These institutions and organizations include the American Cancer Society, British Medical Journal, U.S. Consumer Information Center, National Cancer Instituite, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Parkinson Foundation and a host more. While the authority of these institutions does not serve as evidence in itself it inspires confidence and speaks to the scope of stupidity or evil that would be necessary to accommodate a conspiracy.

Why then do websites such as Sweet Poison persist and prosper and why do they spew harmful lies like the following:

“aspartame has been linked to various neuropsychiatric disorders, including panic attacks, mood changes, visual hallucinations, manic episodes, and isolated dizziness. A small, double-blind crossover study of patients with major depression revealed a higher incidence of reactions in these patients compared with nondepressed volunteers after administration of 30 mg/kg for 7 days; symptoms included headache, nervousness, dizziness, memory impairment, nausea, temper outbursts, and depression.”

And

“They have NO food value, trick the body into thinking it is eating something sweet, and they have by-products of harmful toxic side effects. And remember that aspartame was discovered as an ulcer drug, not a sweetener. Every diet drink you used to drink was a dose of medication .”

This website is but one in a sea of harmful nonsense. Another is Mercola which ascribes the following symptoms to aspartame:

“Headaches/migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, tachycardia, insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss, and joint pain.”

All of these claims and the hundreds more are ideologically driven, factually incorrect lies or exaggerations. But where are they spawned from? It would be all but impossible to neatly sum up the root cause of such medical paranoia but I wish to highlight what I believe to be a factor at play.

As civilization has progressed it has quickly become less possible for an individual to truly understand how the technology that surrounds him/her actually works. In an early agricultural society each individual would have been able to understand the basic mechanisms for everything important in their life. For those things not properly understood a superstitious or religious explanation would likely have been made up which would still provide a secure and comprehensible explanation for the individual. The farmer would be content and need not rely on any source of knowledge outside of his own. In the modern age however we are surrounded by countless technologies we do not understand personally. I certainly could not describe in detail how a car functions, or a micro-chip, airplane, pharmaceutical or television. We learn what basics that we can or want to and place our trust in authority to understand the rest for us. I believe this need to rely on authority to understand things for us provides a breeding ground for paranoid alternative views.

A backlash has formed against those who have spent the years of study necessary to understand the subject matter and ideologically opposed members of the society have taken to developing their own unfounded conclusions. These people ask themselves why they should trust what science tells them, how do they know it’s not a scam and who are these pesky scientists to tell them what is good or bad for them. It seems to me that some individuals prefer to take the “I’m the only person that knows what is right for my body tact”.

This then can be related back to aspartame; here we have a chemical which we’ve been told by authorities and scientists is healthy and harmless. The empirical evidence is there though many choose not to read it. This chemical provides a similar stimulus to sugar, something we’ve been told is harmful in high yet easily accessible amounts. A very recent study even shows that drinking only two sugared soft drinks a week may increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer. People then ask what the catch is? Not bothering to understand the science themselves they manufacture dissent and accuse the ‘establishment’ of intentionally harming the public. Paranoia such as this may in part be fuelled by events like the discovery of radiation where harmful treatments were peddled to the public (by quacks) before it was properly understood. Whatever the case may be I believe strongly that having to rely on others to hold knowledge about our own health for us is at least a partial cause of aspartame type conspiracy thinking.

In Richard Dawkins’ brilliant documentary series Enemies of Reason he chats with sociologist Steve Fuller about authority. Fuller argues that in today’s information age people are beginning to feel liberated and finding the confidence to question authorities and develop their own truths. Fuller argues that this is creating a sort of second age of enlightenment where people are waking up discovering that the truth they’ve been fed might not be the only truth out there. I will finish this entry with Richard Dawkins’ reply to this argument, a pithy retort to that sort of thinking:

“Yes we want to question authority. We don’t want to say “because this person is the president of the Royal Society, what he says is right”, we’ve got to go back to the evidence and find out what is true.”

For more information see the following:
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4127
http://www.aspartame.org/aspartame_myths.html
http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/aspartame.asp

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4 Responses to “Diet Dilemma? What’s the Catch?”

  1. The internet is a great tool for skeptics, but it is an even greater tool for pseudo-scientists to spread their nonsense, so overall the balance tips the wrong way I think.
    Another problem these days is that it has become impossible for the lay-man not ensconced in science day in day out to figure out which sources are trustworthy.

    (Btw, the snopes link points to the wrong website.)

  2. I agree that the internet is a dangerous tool in the hands of psuedo-scientists. The internet is a great tool for anyone who wants there voice heard, and often it is the impassioned ignorant that wish to be vocal. As with all issues of free speech I say let them talk. If we as rationalists are there to counter every piece of nonsense they come up with then it can really highlight the inanity of many claims. Sure it seems like a hard task to always be there, but that’s part of what I’m aspiring to with this blog.

    And thanks for the heads up about the link, fixed now ;)

  3. I also had an argument with somebody I know about Aspartame. I’m going to write more about it soon.

    If you want to see a really interesting rant on the subject by an Aspartame conspiracy monger, check out this YouTube video:

    Apparently, Aspartame is part of a plot by the Bilderberg group to wipe out 80% of the population. Isn’t that the one of the lamest conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard? “We’ll kill them all with artificial sweetener!! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”

    30 years into it’s widespread use and there’s no sign of the population being culled. This is a pretty darn incompetent population control measure!

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