Opinionista Ivo Vegter 3 September 2013

The sickly history of sweeteners

The history of artificial sweeteners is a history of public neuroses, bad science, paranoid distrust of corporations and regulatory failure. It plays to our fear of what we don’t understand, absurd risk-aversion on the part of regulators and the political effectiveness of legislating popular prejudices.

The modern food industry is a testament to human ingenuity and progress. A combination of agricultural productivity, industrial efficiency and applied science provides most of the world’s population with an abundant choice of fresh and tasty food. Food companies conduct extensive market research to try to discover what customers find good to eat, where “good” means both “healthy” and “tasty”. Chemistry, financial and operations wizards then figure out ways to produce what the studies found, at prices that customers are willing to pay. And then, and then (cue ominous music), the evil bastards give us what we want.

Except, as we all know, Big Food includes companies like Monsanto, and companies like Monsanto kill people for sport. Their preferred sporting event is to poison cute little children while their mothers are watching. And how do they do this? By lacing food with “synthetic chemicals created in a laboratory”, of course. One such poison is sucralose, which according to “The World’s #1 Natural Health Website”, Dr Mercola, is similar to compounds like DDT and Agent Orange. Another is aspartame, which the same a purveyor of alternative health products claims is “by far the most dangerous substance added to food”. It says a recent study found “clear association between aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukaemia in men”. (We’ll read the study Dr Joseph Mercola cites to justify this “clear association” claim in a minute.)

Ask anyone who enjoys indulging fears of food safety, cancer and synthetic chemicals, and they’ll tell you artificial sweeteners are bad for you. Ask anyone who can’t bear taking responsibility for their own behaviour and they’ll tell you the food industry – of “Big Food”, as detractors like to call it – is the cause of all their problems, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and cancer.

But they’d be wrong.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Anyone here remember saccharin? Back in the 1970s, when margarine was the concerned mother’s favourite bread spread, saccharin was a popular sweetener for weight watchers. That is until we discovered it causes cancer and mom quietly made it disappear from the pantry shelf, guilt-ridden over the premature death to which her lack of caution had condemned her children.

Saccharin was one of those serendipitous discoveries that science sometimes throws up. A chance collaboration in the late 1870s between Ira Remsen, an American medical doctor and chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University with extensive research experience in Germany, and Constantin Fahlberg, a Russian chemist working for a sugar import firm named HW Perot in Baltimore, Maryland, produced a substance that, when Fahlberg accidentally tasted it, proved to be far sweeter than sugar, though with a somewhat bitter aftertaste. In 1879, the pair wrote a paper describing methods to synthesize benzoic sulfenide, or saccharin. Fahlberg was ultimately awarded the patents, against Remsen’s protests, and by the middle of the next decade, had tested the substance for safety (using himself as a guinea pig) and set up a production facility. Its primary use was as a drinks sweetener, though doctors also prescribed it as a curative for all sorts of conditions, including obesity.

In 1906, an influential book by Upton Sinclair appeared entitled The Jungle. The famously muckraking journalist was an avid socialist and wrote a dystopian exposé of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. His book is widely believed to have led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which laid the basis for food safety regulation as we know it around the world today.

As early as 1908, saccharin was the target of an attempted ban on the vague suspicion that a synthetic chemical, and a coal-tar derivative to boot, can’t possibly be good for you. President Teddy Roosevelt gave the proposed ban short shrift: “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.”

Roosevelt’s diktat was correct, because there was no scientific evidence that it caused harm, and plenty of evidence of economic benefits. But his ruling was unscientific in that it was based on his personal experience of consuming it every day. He was right for the wrong reasons.

This sparked a standoff between health lobbyists claiming to act in the public interest, and industry lobbyists acting on behalf of corporate producers. Roosevelt created a panel of scientists, chaired by Ira Remsen, which declared saccharin to be safe in small doses, but the bureaucrats in charge of enforcing the new food safety law determined that such moderation could not be guaranteed. Saccharin would henceforth be prohibited in processed foods.

Ironically, one of the grounds for its fall from favour was the very thing that made it popular half a century later, namely that sugar had nutritional value, while saccharine did not. Scientific evidence remained inconclusive, and claims by both sides in the debate remained controversial and unresolved.

During World War I, the largest saccharin producer, Monsanto, took to the newspapers to advertise its product as a solution to rising sugar prices. Although the ban on use in processed foods remained, nothing stopped drug stores from selling the pure product directly to consumers. World War II saw another spike in popularity for the sweetener and it was soon permitted as a food additive once more.

While the desire for a guilt-free, non-fattening sweetener at first trumped the inconclusive claims of health risks, the times they were a-changing. In 1958, a legislative amendment introduced the Delaney Clause, which prohibited the use of carcinogens in food. It seemed simple. Who’d want to put cancer-causing agents in food?

Meanwhile, artificially sweetened soft drinks and sweeteners designed for tea and coffee grew in popularity, but a counter-revolution was also underway. Popular distrust of industrialisation and synthetic chemicals was on the rise, to reach a peak with the idealistic notions of natural purity of the hippie era.

But, as Dr Bruce Ames, renowned biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley points out, there is really no category difference between synthetic and natural chemicals. The former may have been tested more frequently, but in both cases about half of all substances that are tested turn out to be carcinogenic. It doesn’t matter that some carcinogens are found in fresh fruit and vegetables, while others are made in labs. It doesn’t matter that animal tests are not always a good analogue for carcinogenicity in humans, because disease mechanisms differ or because humans ingest far lower doses.

The scientific line between toxic and non-toxic had become hazier as tests grew more sophisticated, but the law was clear. If it can cause cancer, even if only in animals, and no matter at what dose, it cannot be sold as food. In 1977, a few years after a complementary sweetener, cyclamate, suffered the same fate because of a suspected link to cancer, saccharin was banned once more.

The ban was quickly overturned, in part because of the hard reality that science simply was not clear about how to define a human carcinogen for practical purposes, and in part because more than a million consumers were rallied by an industry advertising campaign to lobby against what they saw as intrusive government interference in their private health choices. However, in place of the ban, a labelling requirement was imposed, warning consumers that: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”

In 1981, it was listed by the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as a substance “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It wasn’t until 15 years later that this august body even established a procedure for delisting a substance, but when it did, the Calorie Control Council filed a petition to have saccharin taken off the naughty list. As it turns out, the physiology that made saccharin harmful to rats did not apply to humans.

In the year 2000 saccharin was delisted by both the NIEHS and the National Institutes of Health. The Environmental Protection Agency, never very quick on the uptake, only took saccharin off the hazardous substances list a decade later.

Saccharin never did cause cancer, contrary to the warning labels that persisted for almost a quarter of a century. It never did recover from its regulatory condemnation, however. Competing sweeteners such as aspartame, xylitol and sucralose exploited its bad reputation, and became the go-to additives for the food industry.

The reason artificial sweeteners became popular in the first place is that they cut out other flavour enhancers that we know we ought to eat in moderation, such as sugar (or its cheaper cousin, high-fructose corn syrup). Yet every time a new alternative comes onto the market, the same health-scare farce plays itself out. The chemical’s name changes, but the neurotic script never does.

Eventually, they even get implicated in obesity, the very thing that they’re designed to curb, because it turns out that tastier food encourages some people to over-eat. Of course, like with MSG, which I wrote about before, it is irrational to claim that food shouldn’t taste better just because some of us eat too much of it if it does. The moderation, variety and composition of your diet are surely important matters, but it makes no sense to use the bad choices of some as an excuse to ban flavouring or sweeteners for others.

I promised that we’d get to read the study that so strongly convinced Dr Joseph Mercola that aspartame, too, causes cancer. Here is the abstract. Read past the medical and statistical jargon and you’ll find that the study found an inexplicable absence of results in women, and found an equally inexplicable coincidence between results involving aspartame-sweetened soft drinks and ordinary sugar-sweetened soft drinks. The conclusion reads: “Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects and occurrence of an apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation.”

If that is what a “clear association” looks like to you, you’re probably in a constant state of nervous tension. But anyone who has seen opinions about margarine swing like a pendulum between healthy and deadly, or has read the history of the spurious saccharin ban, ought to be a little sceptical about claims that your favourite diet sweetener is much like DDT.

If you didn’t know greedy food companies lie to you so they can profit by killing you with poisonous toxins, Dr Mercola will tell you so. Of course, he’s not like them at all, so order your Krill Oil and PowerPlate now. And if you have a sweet tooth? Dr Mercola advocates using stevia, “the Natural and SAFE Alternative to Sugar the FDA and Big Business Don’t Want You to Know About”.

All the capitals in that sentence make the claim truer than it otherwise would have been, obviously. However, what he really means is that the bad, bad FDA hasn’t explicitly approved it for use in food because of health concerns, including studies that have linked it to low sperm count and smaller offspring in rats and even cancer.

Clearly, our doctor makes a noble, honest living scaring the wits out of you, but only when it suits him.

Personally, I stick to natural foods, like sugar. At least it won’t kill me, because it’s natural. Oh, wait, sugar will kill me. And naturally, Dr Mercola agrees. It’s good for business to scare people, after all. DM


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