Science - March 17, 2005

Sweetener hype is mixed with Calvinist guilt complexes

Two glasses of diet soda and a glass of a sugar-free yogurt drink contain more sweeteners than young children should consume, at least if they contain cyclamate. This was the alarming warning published by the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (VWA) last week. But according to sweetness-expert Dr Kees de Graaf there is an element of Calvinistic guilt complex behind the sweetener hype.

The sweetener that the VWA was warning about is one of the older ones, which has been used by the food industry for decades. As of 1 January next year the guidelines will be tightened and the amount of cyclamate allowed in food will be reduced. Once that has happened children who drink artificially sweetened lemonade should not be taking in amounts above the norm.

Mission
Sweeteners have a bad name despite the strict legislation. ‘There is a small but fanatical group of people,’ says De Graaf who works at the sub-department of Human Nutrition. ‘They are determined not to use sweeteners, and on the internet there are some who regard it as their mission in life to get sweeteners banned.’

According to De Graaf, however, the sweetener hype has more to do with psychology than science. ‘We associate sweetness with pleasure and enjoyment,’ he says. ‘And where there is enjoyment, the tendency to forbid is usually lurking around the corner. I don’t know if there’s a link with the guilty conscience associated with Calvinism but it wouldn’t surprise me. What is also the case is that sweetness is very recognisable. If after eating something, sweet people come down with something they are quick to associate this with sweeteners or sugar. These substances are easy targets.’

Pulp
There are horror stories about ordinary sugar. ‘Sugar already got a bad reputation in the sixties,’ says De Graaf. ‘Researchers like John Yudkin argued that people should eat less sugar. Sugar was said to cause hyperactivity in children and claims were made that it also caused diabetes and arthritis. Whether you agree with Yudkin or not, at least his claims were based on something,’ says De Graaf. ‘But his successors manufactured pulp. They made claims which are totally unfounded, for example that sugar creates criminals and is responsible for schizophrenia.’

If sugar has a bad name, sweeteners are considered far worse, as anyone who has done a bit of surfing on the internet will know. Fanatics have been waging a bitter war against the sweetener aspartame, claiming it causes multiple sclerosis, ME, brain tumours and diabetes.

Urban legend
The website aspartamekills.com compares producers, politicians and managers to Adolf Hitler because they refuse to take aspartame off the market. The website claims that aspartame has led to as many victims as the Holocaust. Meanwhile the aspartame hype is high on the list of Urban Legends.

The myths surrounding sweeteners are so soaked in paranoia and feelings of guilt that they ignore the potential health benefits of artificial sweeteners, according to De Graaf. ‘Sweeteners can help fight obesity. We know that soft drinks that contain sugar are the cause of weight gain. The internal counter with which the body registers how many calories it has already had is blind to sugar in soft drinks. If you have drunk lots of soft drinks containing sugar during the day you are not likely to eat less for dinner to compensate. From that point of view diet drinks are a great invention, and I’m not changing my view on this one.’ / WK

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