Aspartame is Safe & TikTok Dietitians Aren’t

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I’m fairly certain that if I am lucky, or unlucky, enough to live to the age of 100, I will still be reassuring people that Diet Coke isn’t going to kill you. In fact, I will probably be doing that while sipping on a Jack and Diet Coke, just to drive the point home. That’s right, if I live to old age I will absolutely be that old crone who tells the local news that the secret to a long life is whiskey and surfing and befriending your local corvid population to do your bidding. But also don’t get your hopes up for that because 99% of my relatives die at the age of 60. Let’s be honest, I’ll probably die bombing down a hill on roller skates but let it be known that I officially am blaming genetics.

Anyway, I’ve now made several videos talking about how aspartame is probably fine for you to consume in moderation, just like everything else we eat and drink. The most recent video was last December when I addressed the breathless headlines claiming that aspartame was linked to anxiety…in mice. Scientists have already studied the link between aspartame and anxiety in humans and found none.

It was just six months later that I started receiving many messages from viewers asking me to look into the news that the World Health Organization had labeled aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.” I have to apologize because while I do try to answer as many questions as possible whether through social media replies or doing a whole video on a topic, I just straight up ignored all of those. Because that WHO announcement contained nothing that I hadn’t already addressed in previous videos, and all the same things still hold true: aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied ingredients in our food supply and it has been found to be generally safe again and again despite fear mongering from the “all-natural” crowd. Like anything we consume, there’s probably an upper limit where it may cause as-yet-unknown problems, but as far as scientists can tell, it’s vastly safer than the ingredient it’s meant to replace, which is sugar.

Which brings me to the World Health Organization’s classification system. The WHO classifies substances in four categories

Group 1

Carcinogenic to humans

Group 2A

Probably carcinogenic to humans

Group 2B

Possibly carcinogenic to humans

Group 3

Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans

These are ways to sort substances not by danger but by how much evidence we have that they may cause cancer. So, aspartame is the lowest actual classification level: maybe it’s carcinogenic, maybe it’s not, we do not know for sure. To put this into perspective, here are some substances that the WHO considers to have more evidence for their danger to you: alcohol, birth control pills, being a firefighter, mineral oils, lunchmeat, sunshine, and salted fish, all of which are in group 1 as definite known cancer-causing substances. Then we have high-temperature frying, being a hairdresser, working the night shift, steak, and very hot beverages in group 2A, probably carcinogenic.

And now, alongside aspartame, we have aloe vera, being a dry cleaner, magnetic fields (the electric charge, not the band), and pickles.

Okay? So if this announcement from the WHO made you throw out your diet soft drinks, then you also might want to chuck all your soothing lotions and, I don’t even know, move into a superconductor? I nearly fell into another rabbit hole trying to figure out the easiest way to avoid magnetic fields but I managed to stop myself to get on with this video.

Because I’m actually not making this video to contextualize the WHO’s classification of aspartame back in July. I’m making this video to complain that apparently there are a bunch of other people on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and elsewhere who are GETTING PAID BIG INFLUENCER BUCKS to contextualize the WHO’s classification of aspartame, and I’m VERY JEALOUS.

Last week I read this piece in the Washington Post that revealed that Big Junk Food is now doing the same thing I have previously complained about other dystopian billion dollar industries doing: paying social media influencers to market their products to a large audience with varying levels of sneakiness and evil. For instance, I previously blasted science influencers for taking money from Big Oil to pretend that propane is some new “green” technology, and then in May I talked about how Big Meat is doing the same thing to convince scientists and science communicators to pretend that meat is somehow essential to human survival. You may recognize this tactic from the Granddaddy of all “Big” industries: Big Tobacco, which paid millions of dollars to get scientists to hide for DECADES the fact that they had indisputable evidence that cigarettes cause cancer.

Now, I’ve criticized corporations like Coca Cola a LOT in my previous videos–they’re pretty bad for humanity in general, considering that not only do they sell us unhealthy sugary drinks but they also take our tap water and sell it back to us, and they sell tons and tons of single-use plastic that never gets recycled. So I wasn’t exactly shocked to discover that the American Beverage Association, the trade and lobbying group for Coca Cola, PepsiCo and other corporations, is paying social media influencers to spread pro-junk food propaganda. But I was surprised at a few aspects of this Washington Post expose.

Like, it starts off by listing influencers who all downplay the “fear-mongering” headlines about the WHO’s aspartame classification:

“In all, at least 35 posts from a dozen health professionals were part of the coordinated campaign by American Beverage. The trade group paid an undisclosed amount to 10 registered dietitians, as well as a physician and a fitness influencer, to use their social media accounts to help blunt the WHO’s claims that aspartame, a mainstay of Diet Coke and other sodas, is ineffective for weight loss and “possibly carcinogenic.”

It’s a really weird way to open this article, because in this case those health professionals were saying something factually correct. No one should be shocked or upset that dieticians and doctors are using their platform to explain what this WHO classification means. And even though I am morally opposed to billionaires and multi-billion dollar companies having a ridiculous amount of control over our cultural narratives, I sympathize with a company that wants to set the record straight when they’re being unfairly maligned. For instance, if a trade group for EVs got fed up with seeing headlines about how “green” propane is, I would understand them channeling some of their marketing budget towards influencers who could educate the population on why that’s not true.

And I think that starting with this specific example does a great disservice–I almost just stopped reading there because this seemed like more “all-natural” chemophobia. But I’m glad I kept reading because it actually got way worse.

Not only do many of these influencers fail to disclose that they’re being paid in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations, but they’re also being paid to tell their audiences to eat candy and ice cream while also “downplay(ing) the health risks of highly processed foods and push(ing) unproven supplements.” And these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill science communicators like yours truly, but registered dieticians and other medical professionals. While anyone with an opinion on a person’s diet can be a “nutritionist,” dieticians must complete extensive training and hold a license in order to have that title.

The point of that education and licensing is to give the public an easy way to find someone they can trust, but these people clearly are failing to uphold that trust. Like, I LOVE sugar, I don’t think it’s required for people to completely give up all sugar to have a healthy diet. But our society does not, in any way, need people to PROMOTE sugar. Here in the US we put sugar in everything. It’s in our sliced bread, for fuck’s sake. And unlike aspartame, there isn’t a rampant amount of misinformation out there against sugar. Big Sugar isn’t paying medical professionals to correct misinformation.

So why would the Canadian Sugar Association pay a dietician to tell her audience that a child who is “obsessed” with sweets to let that child eat as much candy as they want? Is it because that will lead the child to eat LESS sugar? Would the Canadian Sugar Association want that? No. It’s because they know that isn’t a way to foster a healthy relationship with food; it’s a way to teach kids that it’s okay to binge as much as they want on pure sugar. The Canadian Sugar Association benefits, while the child is left with the health problems as well as the weight gain, which can lead to stigma, which can lead to eating disorders, which can lead to a lifelong unhealthy relationship with food. A lifetime of treating sugar cravings with more sugar, because that’s what they learned as a kid.

The Washington Post report goes on to describe dieticians promoting “collagen supplements, detox teas, capsules marketed for “mitochondrial health”” and even ““brain boosting” omega-3 fatty acid supplements to children as young as 6 months old.”

You may wonder who is overseeing the training and licensing of these dieticians, who are using their titles to cash checks to promote unhealthy behaviors and shady supplements. Well, that would be the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who are sponsored by American Beverage and Tate & Lyle, “one of the world’s largest producers of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.” The Academy has “accepted millions of dollars in donations from leading producers of soda, candy and ultra-processed foods, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé.”

I honestly had no idea about any of that until I read this article. I used to tell friends to be sure that when they’re looking for help with their diet, to find a licensed and registered dietician and not a nutritionist. But…I guess that’s not enough! You also have to check your dietician’s instagram to make sure they aren’t shilling for Big Junk Food. I almost shorted that to “Big Junk” but that’s another industry entirely.

But all of this brings me back to why these dieticians shouldn’t even be taking money from these industries even when they have complete freedom to say what they want, and even when they’re saying something factually correct, like “aspartame is actually probably safe in moderation.” It’s exactly why I argued previously for science communicators to stop taking money from big industries: because taking that money immediately damages your credibility, not just for that one sponsored post but for every other post. The example I used before still holds: if I took money from a whiskey brand that I already drink anyway, what’s the big deal? Well, you could no longer trust me to hold Big Alcohol accountable. If I’m worried about getting that future paycheck, I’m going to skip doing a video on the research that shows that alcohol is very bad for you, and I sure as hell wouldn’t include “alcohol” on a list of the WHO’s known carcinogens.

So while I do wish I lived in a world where large industries would just cut me a check to say true things, I’m just going to continue to rely on my patrons. They’re not even on the WHO’s list of possible carcinogens. Oh unless they’re hairstylists on the night shift, I guess.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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