The health conscious and trendy public are a bit obsessed with the food they consume. This can be a good thing, to the extent that it results in a more healthful diet, but unfortunately those interested in improving their diet must wade through a great deal of misinformation before getting to accurate and helpful information.
For example, I recently gave a lecture (ironically on health information) at Google (you can view the entire talk here). Google is a progressive company that tries to help their employees stay healthy. They provide many snack stations and helpfully divide snacks into red, yellow, and green shelves. Employees can freely choose whatever snacks they want, but they are gently encouraged to choose from the more healthful green shelf and avoid the unhealthy red shelf. I noticed that beverages sweetened with sugar cane were placed on the green shelf, while those sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda were slumming on the red shelf. It was ironic to see such a high-tech company falling for the naturalistic fallacy.
Sugar cane sweetened sodas are becoming fashionable, mainly to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which many claim is associated with obesity and increased cardiovascular risk. Jim Laidler did an excellent job reviewing this controversy two years ago on SBM. To me this represents a general tendency to try to understand a complex question by oversimplifying, specifically by avoiding perceived “villains.” It may seem overwhelming to grapple with all the complex information involved in basic dietary health choices, like which beverages are best. Following simple rules, such as avoiding single ingredients that are perceived to be “bad,” therefore has an appeal. I also think this is part of the appeal of the naturalistic fallacy, a simple litmus test to what is good vs bad.
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.
The perils of fructose:
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has, over the past few decades, gradually displaced cane and beet sugar as the sweetener of choice for soft drinks, candy and prepared foods. In recent years, there have been a growing number claims that HFCS is a significant health risk to consumers, responsible for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a wide variety of other illnesses.
In fact, there are large amounts of experimental data supporting the claims that high levels of fructose in the diet can cause hyperlipidemia (high levels of fats — triglycerides primarily — in the blood), obesity and insulin resistance and may lead to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (for a good recent review, see ). A high-fructose diet is thought to cause hyperlipidemia (and probably visceral obesity) because fructose is preferentially “sent” to fatty acid synthesis and it also reduces the activity of lipoprotein lipase (for a good review, see ). The mechanisms by which fructose causes insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease are less clear (see, for example ,  and ), but there is no shortage of hypotheses. Despite the fact that some of the underlying mechanisms are not clear, the evidence seems pretty solid that there are real risks to high fructose consumption.
However, the question remains — is HFCS more of a health risk than other sweeteners? Many of the sources that demonize HFCS list alternative sweeteners — cane sugar, honey, agave syrup, etc. — that they claim are healthier than HFCS, but those claims usually rest primarily on the fact that these alternatives to HFCS are “natural” rather than any actual data showing that they are safer than HFCS. (more…)