Aspartame, Big Beverage, TikTok Influencers, and the Truth About Sugar

Dec 6, 2023 | Culture

If you’ve seen this Washington Post and Examination News story, and if you’ve read the comments, then you saw many condemning these social media influencers, and a ton of back-and-forth about the scientific evidence.

Is aspartame bad? Is it safe for humans to consume? Does it cause cancer? Have there been enough studies testing the possible long-term effects? Which “science” should we believe?

Here are the facts:

  1. The WHO study is available to the public and clearly states that the link between aspartame and cancer is based on “findings of limited evidence.”
  2. More than 90 countries have reviewed aspartame and found it to be safe for human consumption and allow its use.
  3. The influencers in question were paid “an undisclosed amount” to feature at least 35 posts denouncing the WHO’s study and reassuring followers not to worry, as part of a campaign by the American Beverage Association.
  4. The American Beverage Association is a government lobbying group that represents the beverage industry in the United States, whose members include the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Keurig Dr. Pepper. Those three companies alone have a combined net worth of $489.61 billion.
  5. While the posts were labeled as ads and/or paid sponsorships, none of them disclosed the payor.

Personally, I think aspartame is gross. It is overly sweet and leaves an undesirable aftertaste. But I will defend to the end any person’s right to choose to consume it. (Free will, and all.) I will also condemn to the end the profiteering corporations who peddle products without conscience or sufficient, evidence-based assurances regarding public safety.

But the argument about whether or not aspartame is ok to consume is distracting us from even more important questions:

  1. Why did a massive beverage lobby pay Tik-Tok influencers to call the WHO’s study “fear-mongering,” especially when the study openly states its limitations?
  2. Why did these “medical professionals” agree to use their social media platforms as a tool for said lobby?
  3. Why does aspartame even exist?

Obviously, American Beverage benefits from such social media campaigns because reassuring consumers about the safety of the main ingredient in many of its members’ top-selling products leads to continued market domination and unfathomable profits.

Also obviously, these influencers benefit from their “clickbait” (the same term they used to describe the WHO’s study) by drumming up followers and clients, and by highlighting (i.e., cherry-picking) specific elements of studies to support their diet-culture claims. But if they truly believed in the benefits of aspartame, should they need to engage in secret advertising deals in order to defend it?

Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by American chemist James Schlatter. It is made up of two naturally occurring amino acids, but is considered artificial because those two acids must be fused together. In 1974, it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a tabletop sweetener and as an additive. Because aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar, much less is needed in products to create the same taste as sugar, so it has a caloric value of almost zero. Aspartame grew in popularity in the 1980s when consumer culture became more “diet-conscious” and realized that choosing foods and beverages sweetened with aspartame was one way to reduce consumption of sugar and “keep calories in check.”

Now why would we want to limit our consumption of sugar specifically? Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has been purported to be associated with a higher risk of developing diabetes, but is that really true? Diet culture demonizes sugar, among other foods, but there is no causal link between sugar and adverse health effects such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, according to a 2016 review of the research, “There is strong evidence that the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and Type 2 Diabetes relies on associated lifestyles and patterns of food and drink consumption rather than on the sugar itself. Surprisingly, despite a common assumption that sugar must be hazardous for people with Type 2 Diabetes, the evidence says otherwise.” (For more on this topic, check out Christy Harrison’s Food Psych podcast episode #284.)

Researchers typically don’t ask participants about or control for eating disorder behaviors such as restriction. Eating disorders, chronic dieting, and weight stigma can all lead to greater sugar intake, and are all independently associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. Researchers also do not account for social determinants of health, such as poverty, violence, environmental toxins, lack of access to care, racism and oppression. This is key because, for example, if study participants were known to engage in restrictive eating behaviors which could correlate with adverse health outcomes, suggesting further restriction of foods such as sugar would make their condition worse, not better.

Christy Harrison states, “Cutting out or severely limiting sugar is generally not needed, and in fact could backfire by putting you in a restrict-binge cycle, which could ultimately be riskier for your health than simply learning to have a peaceful and balanced relationship with sugar. Working to heal your relationship with food is really one of the best things you can do for your healing, and that includes not labeling sugar or any other food as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

It is ironic that the influencers touting the safety of aspartame and publicly debunking the WHO study (which, remember, openly states that the evidence linking aspartame to cancer is limited) are not also debunking the mixed science linking sugar to poor health outcomes. What they should be saying is that sugar is not the enemy and that we don’t need food substitutes or more fear-mongering product placement from Big Diet and those companies and “professionals” who benefit from clutching onto that bandwagon.

The moral of the story? Eat aspartame if you want. Know that there is no judgment about that here. But also know that aspartame is a laboratory-created part of diet culture’s attempts to vilify sugar and fatness, when there is inherently nothing wrong with either.

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