The latest in artificial sweetener scares:
Artificial sweeteners might be triggering higher blood-sugar levels in some people and contributing to the problems they were designed to combat, such as diabetes and obesity, according to new findings published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Although the precise reasons behind the blood-sugar changes remain uncertain, researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners could be disrupting the microbiome, a vast and enigmatic ecosystem of bacteria in our guts.
Svati Kirsten Naruta reminds us that the “news” isn’t really new at all:
There have been a lot of major news stories about the science behind artificially sweetened products. But I didn’t see a single one this week that acknowledged the ones written earlier this year, or in 2008, or 2005. More often than not, each individual story gives the impression that the latest science is either totally new or surprisingly compelling.
“It seems to amplify every time,” Purdue University’s Susan Swithers told Quartz. “Things don’t have to be shocking and new to get this shocking and new treatment.” Swithers herself has been featured in news stories about artificial sweeteners and diabetes, including an NPR one asking “Do diet drinks mess up metabolisms?” in 2013.
Not many news outlets have the space, time or resources to contextualize, at length, each meaningful scientific study. But there’s something wrong with a cycle in which reporters constantly react to press releases from academic institutions or scientific journals by generating uniquely attention-grabbing stories based on each one.
Daniel Engber looks at the historical pattern:
The supposed risks of saccharin, like those of other sweeteners, have a way of glomming on to whatever other fears happen to be in the public mind. In Roosevelt’s day, we worried over fraud in manufacturing – flour cut with sawdust, coffee mixed with powdered acorns—and saccharin was decried as a cheapo surrogate for sugar. By the time Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer, the sweeteners were seen as dangerous carcinogens. These days we’re more concerned with diabetes and obesity, and so the putative effects of drinking diet soda have shifted once again. Now they’re blamed for bringing on the very thing they’re meant to counter: a growing scientific literature hints that artificial sweeteners could make us fat.
And evidently the first sweetener gave the Romans lead poisoning. Previous Dish on sweetener research here. And Aaron Carroll has made the case that however bad artificial sweeteners might be, sugar is worse.