Responding when a long time assumption about aspartame is challenged

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Oh, what questions arise from opening a science textbook! I didn’t realize a biology textbook would lead me again to wondering about the challenges of being open to new information and the doubt that comes with living in a world where we recognize too much research is done with corporate funding and too little paid for by governments.

I borrowed a book Beginnings of Life by Ricki Lewis from the library thinking my nine year old might find it interesting. He didn’t pick it up from the pile during the first week so today I thought I’d read the first chapter to him as part of his schoolwork. The first chapter is on thinking scientifically, and it starts off with the history of aspartame. That aspartame was discovered by accident when a scientist licked his finger wasn’t new to me, since my scientist-husband likes to share that story, but what surprised me was reading about the testing of aspartame. There’s a side block on the book outlining “The Long Life of a Food Additive – The Aspartame Story” talking about when it was discovered (1965) to the mid-nineteen eighties when the CDC review concluded that it was safe though some people might have unusual sensitivity.

The textbook uses the story of aspartame as a way of explaining the scientific method: observe, hypothesis, experiment, etc, etc and it talks about the complications like sample size, the need for things to be double blind, etc, etc. But it describes it so simply, so securely. It talks about science being a cycle of discovery where things are repeated over and over. Aspartame was tested, then tested again, then tested again.

I was two years old when aspartame was approved for carbonated drinks and as an inactive ingredient in drugs for humans. By the time I was three consumer groups were pointing out that heat causes aspartame to break down into methanol and can then react to form formaldehyde. I wasn’t yet four when the CDC investigated and found the reports of adverse effects weren’t enough to be concerned. My parents were young parents then. They didn’t have the internet to fill them with fear but they still heard stories about the possible negative effects, and diet drinks never used at my house. I grew up believing that aspartame was dangerous.

What then do I do as a homeschooling mother reading the textbook with my children? There are always methods and options for casting doubt on something. I don’t have to believe something because the textbook says it does. In fact some would probably suggest it is braver, more edgy to challenge the textbook. People like to believe they know more than authority figures. Do I throw in a little word of doubt, suggest perhaps that the experiments were done by people with a financial incentive in the product and might have overlooked problems? Do I suggest that it isn’t as cut and dry as the book makes it sound? Do I talk about the idea of long-long term studies looking at the effect of 20 or 30 years of diet soda drinking? Or do I let my kid assume its probably safe because science says so. What do I do when confronted with something that challenges my long held beliefs?

This isn’t really a question of which soda to drink. It’s a question of science and society. It’s where science and politics meet. Do we teach kids that the scientific method works in theory but not necessarily in real life because of what some of my anti-capitalist friends routinely refer to as “the profit motive”? Is science something that cannot or does not work in today’s world, to tainted by commercial interests?

Reading on political blogs I often hear that science is “under attack.” Sometimes its under attack because the government is reducing funding, refusing to listen to it, and in the case of Canada, destroying science libraries. Science is under attack by politicians that would prefer to stick to their preconceived notions and not have to try to tailor their policies to what science finds as the best practices. The activists in those cases want to encourage politicians to listen to science.

On the other hand, science is also under attack in a way from activists determined that they know best. There’s plenty of people out there promoting their anti-scientific agendas, claiming that science is just a tool of Big Pharma or Big Agriculture or big anything. They’re determined to rescue people from the possibility that something “unnatural” might be secretly destroying your immune system and causing all sorts of havoc. They reject vaccines based on anecdotal evidence, rely on scary names like frankenfoods and generally distrust doctors. They might believe in science in theory, but their writings have a conspiracy tinge to them, suggesting that the real science is being hidden and what passes for science is but corporate propaganda. Even when there has been incredible effort wasted on disproving the erroneous autism/vaccine connection (which itself can be connected to fraud and “the profit motive”), people still insist on believing it.

In the aftermath of the Bill Nye and a creationalist debate, a picture is going around facebook claiming to summarize the debate. The heart of the matter is what would convince you to change your mind? For the creationalist, nothing, and for Bill Nye, evidence. But I can’t see, examine or even understand all the evidence relevant to the things around me. I wish I could, but I know I can’t. I need – we all need – systems of education and scientific evaluation there to look at the evidence, and we need to build those systems worthy of being trusted, of letting them sway our minds.

There are problems with the way science is done. Studies are not always well written or researched. Good research does’t always get published and bad research sometimes is. Media releases about the studies may leave people with misinformation.  We don’t always ask the right questions, and we disagree on the relevance of those questions. Yet we need science, and we need to keep working to protect science.

The problem, I think, is in politics not science. It is politics that could put more funding into basic science, more funding into scientific education, better rules to protect whistle-blowers, and more money for the government agencies which oversee which products are available for sale in our countries. It is politics that could take quicker, firmer action on the substances that science is saying are toxic, so that people can be assured the government is not hiding or denying dangers. It is in the political field that we could say, yes, round-up ready corn is a problem because it permits the destruction of the milkweed upon which monarch butterflies depend.

And as for aspartame, I can still turn to this Globe and Mail Article which points out that while aspartame is safe, its unnecessary as it doesn’t assist in weight loss.



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