The artificial sweetener aspartame, best known as an additive to diet sodas, has been around for more than 50 years. Despite some controversies regarding its approval, aspartame is safe. That fact hasn’t stopped various aspartame hoaxes from regularly circulating, which get signal-boosted by quacks like Dr. Mercola. So I decided to take a look at the molecule, its metabolites, and whether or not there is any veracity to claims of toxicity.
If you’ve ever eaten a beet-filled meal you probably remember the pink urine and unsettlingly red stool you pass a bit later. The culprit is a molecule called beetroot red, and it’s used as a natural food dye in many products including candies, canned soups, and sausages (yikes). Previously I said that anthocyanins and carotenoids are the most-used vegetable-based pigments in processed foods. Beetroot red falls into neither of those categories.
Given soy’s ubiquity in our lives and diets, I thought it would be instructive to explore how those fields of beans become nondescript additives creeping into so much of our Western diet. “Processed foods” is a bit of a black box but by looking at this one food source I can show you that it actually supports massive swaths of our agricultural and food systems, and a bit of what this means for our diet.
What’s in your food? Most people are aware of the macronutrient classes protein, fat, and carbs, as well as the essential micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. Additionally, water and fiber don’t fit into either category. But there’s long been much excitement over phytochemicals, the organic compounds produced by plants that are not considered vitamins because they are nonessential. These include polyphenols like resveratrol, which is toxic to cancer cells and augments metabolism and extends lifespan in mice. Frustratingly, observations of resveratrol’s beneficial effects repeatedly fail to replicate in humans. This conundrum is referred to as the ‘resveratrol paradox’, and reflects our as-yet incomplete understanding of how we could activate resveratrol’s mechanism in vivo with other chemical agents. But I’m not talking about resveratrol today; instead I’ll discuss one of the most abundant classes of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, namely, anthocyanins.
One of my favorite posts on Derek Lowe’s In The Pipeline blog is the classic Eight Toxic Foods, in which he eviscerates* a sloppily-thrown together BuzzFeed listicle of additives, dyes, and stabilizers found in processed food. Derek addresses a frequent theme of unaccountable clickbait propagating through social media, chemophobia: an aversion to any substance with a synthetic, complicated name. It’d be a mistake to think Derek is defending brominated vegetable oil or azodicarbonamide, which don’t really mind if you think they’re scary. All chemicals are toxic at certain thresholds, even water. The take home message is don’t be afraid of some chemical simply because you don’t know what it is: find out what it does, how much of it is in the food you eat, and whether that level is OK. Too often we delegate these responsibilities to agents that are not acting in our personal interest.
So I’m starting a blog. I’m putting myself, and my writing, out there on the internet for everyone. I’d say it was an epiphany, but it was actually an idea I’ve had bouncing around in my head for years due to my frustration with misinformation, unsupported claims, and undeserved authority springing from many health and nutrition websites. I don’t have all answers but I am confident that I have the tools and desire to learn and, probably most importantly, no particular agenda except that which is supported by evidence.
I committed to this blog idea about 6 months ago, but I didn’t want to jump into my favorite topics and half-ass it. I wanted to read, study, amass a bibliography, collect topic ideas, discuss the idea with friends, and really mentally map out what I wanted it to be. I got a library card, contacted some experts (a few of whom even got back to me!), and sought out papers and documentaries. It was a humbling experience; remember how I mentioned my frustration with misinformation, etc.? There’s also a lot of really good information available in many different subfields. I wish I had more time to devote to studying all of it.
Writing is a passion of mine, so it was almost inevitable I’d do something like this eventually. That eventuality has arrived, and it’s going to be a big challenge for me personally to make frequent updates and make it engaging. But I’m ready.