Note: This was originally published as a “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine under the title “Aspartame: Safe Sweetener or Perilous Poison?” and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Michael Shermer. There are other artificial sweeteners not specifically addressed here, but as far as I know there are no convincing health concerns about any of them, just this same kind of hype and fearmongering based on animal studies and speculation with no validation from human clinical studies.
Aspartame is a low calorie sugar substitute marketed under brand names like Equal and Nutrasweet. It is a combination of two amino acids: L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It is available as individual packets for adding to foods and it is a component of many diet soft drinks and other reduced-calorie foods. Depending on who you listen to, it is either a safe aid to weight loss and diabetes control or it is evil incarnate, a deadly poison that is devastating the health of consumers.
A reader sent me an ad from his local newspaper that recommended using stevia instead of aspartame and made these startling claims about aspartame:
- It is derived from the excrement of genetically modified E. coli bacteria
- Upon ingestion, it breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid.
- It accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA each year including seizures, migraines, dizzinesss, nausea, muscle spasms, weight gain, depression, fatigue, irritability, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety, tinnitus, schizophrenia and death.
Let’s look at those claims one by one.
Like most people who grew up after April 22, 1970, I think it is important to be as environmentally responsible as possible. Like many I fail miserably much of the time, but at least I feel guilty about it. Recycling offers the opportunity to feel good about my environmental impact with little effort, since the garbage collection infrastructure in Portland makes recycling easy.
Some products are best extensively reprocessed before reused. Urine, as an example. There are proponents of topical and/or drinking urine as a treatment/cure for nearly any illnesses. The kidneys are mostly responsible for fluid and electrolyte balance and I realize that normal urine is mostly water, salts, urea and a smattering of other very dilute molecules. I have the urine tox screen to prove it. Urine is not a particularly noxious body fluid, but it is not high on my list of liquids to drink under normal circumstances.
Urine is mostly water but not an optimal source of water if it is your only source for fluids. Urine drinkers love to mention the occasional trapped earthquake victim who survives, in part, from drinking their own urine. For the first several days the urine would be dilute enough to keep people reasonably hydrated, as humans cannot concentrate urine as well as, say, a camel. So I can see where consuming urine for a short period of time would delay progressive dehydration and death. A couple days of drinking urine neat, shaken not stirred, would be harmless and, if there were no alternative sources of water, beneficial. I do suffer from the societal taboo that piss is icky, and for aesthetic reasons urine is not something I would want to consume, even when it is referred to as its more common designation ‘Coors Light’. (more…)
“I don’t want to give my child any drugs or chemicals for their ADHD,” says a parent. “Instead, I’m thinking about using caffeine. Sound strategy?”
It may be dispensed by a barista and not a pharmacist, and the unit sizes may be small, medium and large, but caffeine is a chemical and also a drug, just as much as methylphenidate (Ritalin) is. Caffeine is even sold as a drug — alone and in combination with other products. But I regularly speak with consumers who are instinctively resistant to what they perceive as drug therapy — they want “natural” options. Caffeinehas been touted as a viable alternative to prescription drugs for ADHD. But is caffeine a science-based treatment option? This question is a good one to illustrate the process of applying science-based thinking to an individual patient question. (more…)
It is an unfortunate truth that there is money in pseudoscience, particularly medical pseudoscience. Money both attracts charlatans and also funds their activities, which includes marketing pseudoscience and defending their claims from scientific scrutiny. In this way the game is rigged in favor of pseudoscience.
With0ut effective regulation, sites like ours are forced to play whack-a-mole with the medical pseudoscience du jour. The latest case in point is Titanium Ion Bands – which are just another version of the Power Balance bands that have been previously exposed as nonsense. The idea is that by wearing a small bracelet on one wrist you will experience improved athletic performance. This sounds impossible – because it is. But companies have successfully bamboozled enough of the public to rake in millions.
The marketing strategy is three-fold. First, get naive professional athletes to endorse the product. Second, give live demonstrations (deceptive parlor tricks) that convince the unsuspecting that something must be going on. And third, wow the scientifically illiterate with a confusing barrage of medical techno-babble. The combination is sadly effective.
Power Balance, for example, makes vague references to frequencies and energy as the explanation for how a little piece of rubber (with embedded holograms) can have any effect on human physiology. The company was eventually legally forced to admit: “”We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims.” The admission has not ended their sale, however.
As early as 2006, I used to be able to write monthly about US FDA warnings on erectile dysfunction supplements being found adulterated with prescription drugs such as sildenafil, the phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitor found in Viagra. These adulteration episodes raised the question of how many anecdotal reports of herbal products “working” had to do with them containing approved medicines.
So common was this practice that FDA created a site in 2008 that was dedicated to this problem: Hidden Risks of Erectile Dysfunction “Treatments” Sold Online. Indeed, these products were more commonly encountered from online retailers and not in health food stores. Other similar practices include bodybuilding supplement being spiked with anabolic steroids and weight loss supplements being adulterated with sibutramine (formerly Meridia), an anorectant removed from the market last year after showing increased incidence of heart attacks and stroke in patients with preexisting cardiovascular disease.
As most readers of the blog know, I am mostly an Infectious Disease doc. I spend my day diagnosing and treating infections and infectious complications. It is, as I have said before, a simple job. Me find bug, me kill bug, me go home. Kill bug. It is the key part of what I do everyday, and if there is karmic payback for the billions of microbial lives I have erased from the earth these past 25 years, my next life is not going to be so pleasant. I will probably come back as a rabbit in a syphilis lab.
It is always fun when my hobby, writing for SBM, crosses paths with my job. This month the Annals of Internal Medicine published “Oseltamivir Compared With the Chinese Traditional Therapy Maxingshigan–Yinqiaosan in the Treatment of H1N1 Influenza. A Randomized Trial.”
I though big pharma was good at coming up with names I do not know how to pronounce. If someone could provide a pronunciation guide in the comments, it would be ever so helpful, so I will not have to embarrass myself when this entry becomes a Quackcast. Dr. Hall wrote about this article on Tuesday, and I have avoided reading her post until this one is up, so there may be overlap in what is discussed. (more…)
During the early days of the 2009 H1N1 influenza A pandemic, the popular herbal formula maxingshigan–yinqiaosan was used widely by TCM practitioners to reduce symptoms. (It’s hard to pronounce and spell, so I’ll refer to it as M-Y.) A new study was done to test whether M-Y worked and to compare it to the prescription drug oseltamivir. It showed that M-Y did not work for the purpose it was being used for: it did not reduce symptoms, although it did reduce the duration of one sign, fever, allowing researchers to claim they had proved that it works as well as oseltamivir.
“Oseltamivir Compared With the Chinese Traditional Therapy: Maxingshigan–Yinqiaosan in the Treatment of H1N1 Influenza” by Wang et al. was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this month. The study was done in China, which is notorious for only publishing positive studies. Even if it were an impeccable study, we would have to wonder if other studies with unfavorable results had been “file-drawered.” It’s not impeccable; it’s seriously peccable.
It was randomized, prospective, and controlled; but not placebo controlled, because they couldn’t figure out how to prepare an adequate placebo control. They considered that including a no treatment group compensated for not using a placebo control, and that objective temperature measurement could be expected to get around any bias. It might not: the nurses who took the temperatures were blinded to the study, but the patients were not. It’s possible that those who knew they were getting M-Y might have believed in it and their bias might have somehow subtly influenced data gathering so that M-Y appeared more equivalent to oseltamivir than it actually was.
There are other problems besides the lack of blinding. (more…)
The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.
In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)
Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media
In 1994 Congress (pushed by Senators Harkin and Hatch) passed DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act). As regular readers of SBM know, we are not generally happy about this law, which essentially deregulated the supplement industry. Under DSHEA supplements, a category which specifically was defined to include herbals, are regulated more like food than like medicinals.
Since then the flood-gates opened, and there has been open competition in the marketplace for supplement products. This has not resulted, I would argue, in better products – only in slicker and more deceptive claims. What research we have into popular herbals and supplements shows that they are generally worthless (except for targeted vitamin supplementation, which was already part of science-based medicine, and remains so).
A company can essentially put a random combination of plants and vitamins into a pill or liquid and then make whatever health claims they wish for their product, as long as they stay within the “structure-function” guidelines. This means they cannot claim to cure or treat a specific disease, but this has proven to be an insignificant limitation on marketing supplements.
A rumble of discontent is being heard across the dietary supplement industry since a draft guidance document was published last month by the US Food and Drug Administration. In response to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in January by President Obama, the FDA was required to produce a documents requiring dietary supplement and foods companies to submit safety information on any new dietary ingredient (NDI) placed into products after 1994.
The guidance document is open for comments from industry but, when issued, a final rule will require dietary supplement products to file a claim of a New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) for any supplement component that was not part of the diet before 1994. What seems to be riling up the industry is that any change in supplement composition after 1994 will require filing of a NDI disclosure. That is, if you as a manufacturer add more DHA to your fish oil supplement, you have to file a NDI notification.