Editor’s Letter: July 2014
By Laura Aiken
In the midst of much discussion around clean labels, two artificial sweeteners were recently approved in North America.
In the midst of much discussion around clean labels, two artificial sweeteners were recently approved in North America. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the go ahead to advantame. Advantame is a high-intensity product whose maker Ajinomoto claims it has a sugar-like taste that blends well when used as a partial replacement. Canada has not yet approved advantame, but it did give the nod in April to saccharin and its salts as a food additive for certain categories of products. Health Canada did not detail on its website how many studies it reviewed to approve saccharin, but the FDA noted that it considered data from 37 human and animal studies on advantame and found no cause for concern under the guidelines for use.
Thirty-seven studies. That’s either quite a few, or not nearly enough, and the specifics of the science in source and methodology weren’t detailed. Your perspective may depend on where you fall in the contemporary push-pull dichotomy between “naturalize my label” and “take out the sugar/lower the calories/help lower my weight.” We’re hearing that people want to indulge when they pick a sweet treat, and low anything is the palate’s least desire. We’re seeing Panera Bread, a big U.S. bakery outfit, recently announce that they are removing all artificial ingredients from their food by 2016 in response to consumer demand. There will always be a niche for artificial sweeteners, for those with diabetes and on weight-loss diets. I am curious as to how many people choose to consume artificial sweeteners without specific dietary needs or concern for the fact that they are synthetic ingredients concocted in a lab, whether derived from nature or not. How many seek to cut their sugar intake through zero calorie sugar and how many do not?
What is it about man-made that has people so uncomfortable these days? Consider aspartame’s long history of controversy spanning back to its original FDA approval in the 1970s that was mired in accusations of poor research, conflicts of interest and shady alliances. Yet time and again, study after study, aspartame has been given the “all clear” for human consumption. Governments and health organizations around the world have stood by the research and aspartame’s approval. Yet fear still abounds. Why?
If one were to look abstractly at food safety, it would seem much of what there is to fear is found in nature: salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, fatal anaphylactic reactions from nuts, excessive levels of mercury in certain fish, and the too-little-studied effects of various herbal supplements. Pregnant women in Canada are now advised to avoid drinking certain herbal teas, such as chamomile. At first glance one thinks “What? What could be more benign than a cup of chamomile?” There is nothing like the cautious months of pregnancy to remind one that nature is far from a benign bounty.
As a society, are we perhaps a little too comfortable with the equation natural = good and safe? Does natural mean scrutiny should be spared? Let’s not forget the tale of young adventurer, Christopher McCandless, whose story was the basis for the film Into the Wild. He hitchhiked his way from the southern U.S. to the thorny wilds of Alaska, where he ate something poisonous and died. To my knowledge, no one has an artificial sweetener listed on his or her final decree as cause of death.
In a haste to chasten all that is artificial, let’s not lose respect for the maleficence of nature. While the idea of artificial sweeteners will always sit uncomfortably for some, there is also security to be had in the known and widely-studied world of the man-made. Products that were once thought safe have later been declared unsafe, so it must be recognized that product approvals are subject to human systems, which are inherently imperfect. It is very difficult to eliminate all risk and know every variable, but a critical eye should apply as equally to what is thought of as natural as what is considered synthetic, rather than too quickly auto-cast our scientific engineering aside.