Aspartame is safe. Avoid it anyways.

Aspartame is an ingredient in the artificial sweetener Equal. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Everything is made of soy

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.

Soy processing for food applications

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Chemophobia and its adherents

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.

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