By Adam R. Houston
and David Sweanor
University of Ottawa
The public panic around aspartame highlights a worrying trend. Fears are too often misdirected toward new innovations rather than the known harms they might reduce.
Pepsi recently reintroduced its signature cola with aspartame. The artificial sweetener was removed less than a year earlier in response to unfounded consumer concerns.
But removing aspartame didn’t reverse the slump in diet cola sales as Pepsi had hoped.
Sales continue to reflect a general decline in soda consumption. From a public health perspective, this decrease is positive, given that sugary soda – fizzy flavoured water without nutritional benefits – is a major contributor to rising obesity.
Given the very real health concerns linked to obesity, it’s unfortunate that aspartame, which can help decrease sugar intake, should be the subject of decades of misinformation.
A similar issue has emerged around another less harmful alternative to a product far deadlier than soda: vapour products that replace cigarettes.
Although use of e-cigarettes has rapidly increased, many people still believe still believe that the alternative product is as, or more, harmful than what it replaces.
This tendency to highlight unfounded concerns about safer emerging alternatives to unhealthy products is the unfortunate flip side of the parallels drawn between Big Tobacco and Big Food.
Both industries create widely-used products with negative health effects. Both have employed similar marketing strategies, from targeting youths to expanding into untapped foreign markets. Increasing insights into the addictive qualities of sugar and other ingredients, and how companies design their products to exploit such properties, underscore these parallels.
We know that decreased consumption of soda and cigarettes will save lives.
Products that mitigate harms can have positive effects even when people don’t give up the activity entirely – getting nicotine without smoke or satisfying a sweet tooth without sugar, for example. This is realistic harm reduction, not unrealistic harm elimination.
It’s perfectly sensible to have a healthy scepticism about new products and technologies, particularly their long-term effects. Where real risks exist, it’s important to identify them.
For instance, given that one byproduct of the breakdown of aspartame is phenylalanine, it’s vital that people with the serious metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) are aware of its presence and have access to alternatives.
However, it makes little sense to focus on theoretical, minuscule or entirely bogus harms without reference to the serious, well-defined harms of existing products that these innovations might help address.
The fact that we do not yet completely and unequivocally know the effects of a 20-year vaping habit should be outweighed by the fact we are all too familiar with the effects of a 20-year smoking habit. The devil we know – well documented in solid science as a massive public health concern – should be the priority.
The history of aspartame shows an abundance of scientific caution. After safety concerns were raised, initial approval was withdrawn pending further testing. And it has remained under close scientific scrutiny. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply.
Similarly, an extensive review by the European Food Safety Authority in response to public concerns confirmed that aspartame consumption at current levels is safe. Nonetheless, misinformation continues to dissuade use and threaten access, even though it would take consumption of 19 cans of diet soda per day to exceed the FDA’s recommended maximum consumption for adults.
Similarly, vapour products represent promising technology for reducing the harms of a product the World Health Organization predicts will kill up to a billion people this century. Vaping electronic cigarettes is irrefutably safer than smoking regular cigarettes.
The United Kingdom’s prestigious Royal College of Physicians concluded that vaping is likely to be at least 95 percent less harmful than smoking. That precise figure might be debatable but the broader conclusion realistically cannot. Yet rumours and alarmist quasi-science of the kind that have long plagued aspartame now fuel regulations not grounded in evidence or good public health practise, and threaten consumer acceptance of and access to products less harmful than those they may now use.
More needs to be done to ensure that consumer knowledge – and regulatory priorities – better reflect the evidence.
Adam R. Houston is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa working in the area of health law. David Sweanor, JD, is a public health advocate and adjunct professor in the Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics at the University of Ottawa.