"Gives plants (and people) what they crave: electrolytes!" From the movie Idiocracy.
I imagine I probably shot myself in the foot with the title of this piece. Over the years, health-related journalism has beaten the artificial sweetener horse so beyond dead that I doubt anyone even pays attention to the words anymore. I know that when I see the words 'Artificial Sweetener' in the title of an article, I'm thinking, "Oh good, another article about artificial sweeteners! I wonder if it will give me the exact same information as the last six articles I read about artificial sweeteners along with some sweet alternatives at the end like stevia and xylitol?" Sometimes I'll skim them to see if the author passes the acid test by not recommending honey or agave syrup (i.e., sugar and sugar).

Well this article is going to be a little different, and it's not because I'm going to annoyingly refer to sucralose by its chemical name 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-BETA-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galactopyranoside (does that sound delicious, or what?). What I'm more interested in exploring here is not whether these things are bad for you, since it's abundantly clear that they are, but the question of why. Why is it that, despite all the information about artificial sweeteners, the sheer number of 'health news' articles floating around the interwebs, and the total chemical shitstorm these abominations of nourishment inflict on your insides, people continue to guzzle this stuff like it's water?

First off, let's allay any doubts anyone has left in their minds about whether or not this stuff is bad for you. It is. Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, the pink packet, the blue packet, the yellow packet, "diet" this, that or the other - this stuff is all killing you slowly by poisoning you. Sayer Ji over at Green Med Info has written some great articles gathering the scientific research on these sweeteners here and here. This is the cold, sober science on the subject, not raving internet fanaticism. Aspartame is 11% methanol by weight and methanol is a poison. Splenda is a "chlorocarbon, in the same family as deadly pesticides like DDT, insecticides, biocides, disinfectants like Chlorox Bleach, and WWI poison gas like dichlorourea," to quote Sayer Ji on the subject. And before anyone protests, telling me that chemical similarities don't mean anything and that a single molecule difference can entirely change the properties of a substance, which is true in some contexts, here's Dr. James Bowden:
"Any chlorocarbons not directly excreted from the body intact can cause immense damage to the processes of human metabolism and, eventually, our internal organs. The liver is a detoxification organ which deals with ingested poisons. Chlorocarbons damage the hepatocytes, the liver's metabolic cells, and destroy them. In test animals Splenda [sucralose] produced swollen livers, as do all chlorocarbon poisons, and also calcified the kidneys of test animals in toxicity studies."
Here's a short list of some of the many effects consumption of artificial sweeteners have on the body (most of these are from animal studies):
  • Urinary tract tumors
  • Increasing brain cancer rates [Aspartame]
  • 40% shrinkage of thymus gland [Sucralose]
  • 2-fold increased odds in kidney function decline in women
  • Increased risk of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and multiple myleoma
  • Enlarged liver and kidney [Sucralose]
  • Reduced growth rate [Sucralose]
  • Contribution to fibromyalgia symptoms (another study found removing artificial sweeteners from the diet was a "successful treatment option". That's right, removing artificial sweeteners from the diet is a treatment for disease.)
  • Metabolic acidosis mimicking diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Cancers of liver and lung [Aspartame]
  • Possible increase cancer gene expression in organs [Aspartame]
  • Adverse affects on spatial cognition and insulin sensitivity
  • Abnormal pelvic mineralization [Sucralose]
  • Hyperplasia of the pelvis [Sucralose]
And that's just a short-list. The topic of the toxicity of artificial sweeteners is vast, and I've given only a few small jumping-off points in the above links. But that's not really what I wanted to discuss. As stated above, I wanted to delve into why people are still eating this stuff.

There are a couple of possibilities, so I'll lay them out here:

1. Some people don't know

While it's possible, it's highly unlikely that anyone in the Western world can plead ignorance on this stuff. Here's a video clip of Dr. Oz being interviewed by Oprah, two of the biggest names in celebrity 'infotainment' (I don't know if that's actually what you call this stuff; I just made it up), with a combined audience of hundreds of millions, and they're talking about artificial sweeteners and how they can cause weight gain. Oz also says that they're artificial, and that he won't use them or give them to his kids. While he's not saying they cause the kind of damage the science actually shows them to (Dr. Oz, are you sugar-coating the truth here? Tsk tsk), and he throws in a plug for agave syrup (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?), the overall impression is negative. If even the single most popular healthertainment (even better!) mainstay is saying he won't touch the stuff then, at the very least, people should be aware that these things aren't innocuous.

2. People don't care

Well, this one is hard to argue against. A significant portion of the population seems hell-bent on killing themselves slowly with their food and lifestyle choices in a narcissistic, I'll-show-the-universe-who's-boss blaze of glory (but a slow blaze of glory. Maybe more of a light smouldering of glory). But a seemingly large component of artificial sweetener users would deem themselves 'health conscious', although I would certainly never grace them with that title myself. I attribute it to the fact that 30+ years of the American Dietetic Association drilling into our heads the idea that calories are a necessary evil that should be minimized at all costs trumps the fact that calorie-free foods are going to kill you later on down the line. The mistaken belief that by avoiding taking in energy (calories) with your food will get you back into your high school prom dress is obviously going to affect your behaviour more than the chance of adverse organ deformations. After all, I can't see my organs, but I can see my gut hanging over my belt. Perhaps this subsection should have been called "The Completely Malformed Value System of North Americans".

3. There's too much conflicting information

True. The low-carb diet world is full of people suggesting the artificial stuff as sugar alternatives. It certainly doesn't help that certain doctors in the media, no doubt practising paid shillery more than actual medicine, are out there telling everyone that the damage caused by artificial sweeteners is "exaggerated", or worse yet, "a myth". You'll notice in that link that Dr. Keri Peterson says these "myths" have never been shown in human studies. They have, however, been shown beyond a shadow of doubt in animal studies, but instead of enacting the precautionary principle, these authorities on health would rather see you continue to take part in the mass human experiment, while lining their pockets along the way.

But since we established in #1 that people must, at the very least, realize there's some controversy around the subject, wouldn't they want to look into it a little bit? I mean, Dr. Oz is a genius and all (*cough*), but wouldn't it be worth your while to do a little research on the subject? Maybe getting a second opinion would be wise, if not actually digging into Pub Med?

So in all likelihood, people know about it and, provided they care, should at least be inclined to investigate, given all the conflicting information. Then what is it that leaves people comfortable in their choice to poison themselves and their families, often with the smug satisfaction that they know they're doing the right thing for their health?

4. People believe their authority figures beyond the point that it's reasonable to do so

© SickofDoctors.comBefore he became Hermann Goering to George Bush Jr., Rumsfeld oversaw the release of poisonous aspartame into the food supply. Even then, it was KNOWN that there were serious side-effects...
Bingo. People continue in this behaviour because the perceived authorities on the subject have not deemed it necessary to stop doing so. It sounds kinda silly when put that way, but think about the excuses you hear: "If this stuff was harmful, it wouldn't be on the grocery store shelf" or "There are people who test for this kind of stuff" or "If it was bad, no one would eat it and the companies would stop producing it." It's basically the ingrained belief that someone out there is looking out for us in some fashion (or that 'the market' will not support products that are actually harmful).

Now I realise that many reading this will not be the types to rely on some little-understood agency to determine what's safe and what isn't. Nothing scares me more than the idea of giving up my free will to some board of executives somewhere who are playing Russian roulette with my health because they've determined that pulling a product off shelves will cost more than the lawsuits from the damages. When it comes to my health, I am 100% proactive in finding out how what I eat is going to affect me. I'll not be relying on the gubmint for this particular point, thank you very much.

But there is a segment of the population who will follow the rule of 'Authority', or just perceived authority, even when it becomes obvious that this authority doesn't have their best interests at heart. This segment is what Bob Altemeyer called 'The Authoritarians', also referred to as Authoritarian Followers, who hold the unfortunate characteristic of blindly believing official authority. From Bob:
They [Authoritarians] are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use lots of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites. But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as close-minded as they are narrow-minded.
I think we all know people like this. I have an aunt who gets very upset whenever someone expresses an opinion that falls outside of right-leaning political ideology. Bob has found from his extensive studies on the subject that the authoritarian follower contingent makes up roughly 50% of the population.

And it's not just people who aren't that smart or fall in with right-wing authoritarian groups. Authoritarian followers can be quite intelligent, of any political ideology or lack thereof; same goes for religion, race or socioeconomic status. They just happen to succumb to what is popular over what they evaluate as morally or factually correct based on their own psychology. To them, what is morally or factually correct is what has been deemed so by the authorities. You can see its effects in multiple fields, including science, academia, nutrition, government policy, you name it. New approaches or theories, rather than being embraced, explored and evaluated are ignored outright in favour of the status quo. What is unpopular is mocked or ignored.

From this SOTT Focus piece about Sarah Palin and her leagues of unquestioning followers back in the day:
It appears that authoritarian followers have only internal value, or rather an instinct: they view the world in terms of "us" (the good and virtuous "in-group" where they themselves belong) and "them" (the evil "out-group", on which negative stereotypes are projected). In a sense, they operate straight out of their reptilian brain, which is concerned with basic goals: survival, establishing home territory, and social dominance. This agrees with the ideas of psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who linked the inability to develop an "authentic hierarchy of values" to a low level of emotional development.

To create and maintain a cohesive picture of "us" vs "them", the authoritarian personality is constantly molding the facts into its beliefs of what reality should be. This is highly subjective thinking.
In the health realm this ends up polarizing the "what the mainstream doctors are saying" and what the "nutjobs on the internet are saying" groups. No polarization like this actually exists, as you have a wide range of opinions and positions coming from both doctors and alternative medical practitioners, as well as health journalists of every stripe. But, to a brain that functions on the level of survival, territory and social dominance, what is actually said is less important than what the group deems to be acceptable. Identifying with the outgroup, or even questioning the ingroup, is seen as dangerous, at least on a subconscious level, and is therefore not acceptable.

Now it's important to emphasize here that being an authoritarian follower is not "bad". These people are not evil. They're just a segment of the population that happens to be less emotionally evolved, for lack of a better term (see Dabrowski's studies of human development for more on this). In the same way you wouldn't get all huffy and superior over someone who is less intelligent than you, it does no good to take this position here.

The article continues:
The authoritarian mind doesn't simply adjust reality to its beliefs; subconsciously, it also adjusts ITSELF to the most apparent currents of the objective reality around it. Because of this, the authoritarians are conformists and conventional thinkers. This has been shown repeatedly in research, notably by Milgram. Following his thought, conformity can be linked to respect for the power of authority, including that of consensus. Robert Altmeyer made another profound observation. Since authoritarians have no genuine internal convictions, they simply lack basic individuality and sense of identity:

[...] I also discovered that if you ask subjects to rank the importance of various values in life, authoritarian followers place "being normal" substantially higher than most people do. It's almost as though they want to disappear as individuals into the vast vat of Ordinaries. [...]

They are quite capable of adhering to the beliefs emphasized by their in-groups when these conflict with what is held by society as a whole. Nevertheless, they do get tugged by what they think everybody else is saying and doing. [...]

[...] The authoritarian followers are easily swayed by psychopathic leaders - highly authoritarian dominant people, devoid of empathy.
So in other words, even if you slapped the cold hard facts on artificial sweeteners into the face of an authoritarian follower, as I have done more than once, they likely wouldn't budge an inch on their position if their perceived authority hadn't deemed it necessary to do so. As long as you see these sweeteners on every table in every restaurant in the western world and diet sodas remain on the menu and line every grocery store shelf, then the 'authority' still obviously perceives them as acceptable.

©, fdaphotosBureau of Chemistry inspectors meeting in Buffalo in 1909. They were chemists and pharmacists working on behalf of the exploding chemistry industry, not nutritionists concerned with or knowledgeable about human diet.
Which is too bad, considering who the authority actually is in this situation. In the US, it's the FDA. And all this leads to the question: why hasn't the FDA actually stepped in, reviewed the evidence and taken these artificial sweeteners off the market once and for all? Even if it were argued that there's not enough evidence, it cannot be denied that there is enough evidence of a possible lack of safety to take this stuff off the market until a conclusive position can be reached. After all, if 50% of the population will follow authorities no matter what, don't those authorities have the moral responsibility to take care of their flock? Who the heck are the FDA anyway?

Well, that is an interesting question. The Food and Drug Administration started out as the 'Division of Chemistry' back in 1862, later known as the Bureau of Chemistry, long before changing its name to the FDA in 1930. Its job at the time was to approve and sanction products from the chemical industry. It was not, despite popular belief, to protect consumers from harmful chemicals. They existed to protect the industry, not the consumer. By sanctioning and approving products from the chemical industry, the Division of Chemistry acted as a legal shield between consumers and the industry by declaring products to be "safe".

Have you ever heard the saying 'a tiger can't change its stripes'? To this day, this is one of the primary functions of the FDA, although they've taken on many other mandates as time has gone on: to shield the chemical industry, now the food additive and pharmaceutical industries, from being sued for damaging consumers via its 'approvals' in the form of G.R.A.S. (Generally Recognized As Safe) safe harbour status. This leaves the general public in most instances without legal recourse against chemical industries as they need to go up against monolithic billion-dollar chemical companies whose products are "FDA-approved". Thus the industry is shielded and given plausible deniability.

Is this all a little too conspiratorial for you? Well don't take it from me, take it from former Commissioner of the FDA, Dr. Herbert Ley:
"The FDA protects the big drug companies, and is subsequently rewarded, and using the government's police powers, they attack those who threaten the big drug companies. People think that the FDA is protecting them. It isn't. What the FDA is doing, and what the public thinks it is doing are as different as night and day."
To recap, we've got authoritarian followers making up half the population who will willingly follow the perceived 'authorities' of their in-group on any given subject without looking for holes in their reasoning or the moral rectitude of their character. But instead of having benevolent authorities who are actually looking out for their followers, we've got corrupt institutions, likely staffed in key positions by psychopaths and other seriously character-disturbed individuals who are constitutionally incapable of empathizing with those they are damaging, instead favouring industry and the money-making machine. Artificial sweeteners will never be taken off the market as long as they're turning a profit and certain members of the population will never stop consuming them as long as they're perceived to be acceptable, which, by the very nature of them being offered for consumption, is perceived as acceptance.

This same situation is not just happening with sweeteners and food additives. It can be seen in multiple fields - the agencies set up to protect us are actually looking out for other interests while the people assume all is well. This is why it is so important in this day and age to do your own research and network with like-minded individuals to share information. This is not a time in our history when one can depend on the word of 'authorities' or make assumptions based on what everyone else is doing. If someone is telling you something, look for hidden agendas, check references and hit the net to do some searching. It just might save your life!

Additional references and further reading

The Bitter Truth About Splenda
Green Med Info's database entry on Aspartame
New Report Shows How You Get Addicted to Diet Soda
The Rockefellers, The FDA & The Cancer Industry
Bob Altemyer's The Authoritarians (full book in PDF format)
Kazimierz Dabrowski's philosophy outlined