In defence of the S word, or why I only ingest things which are non-trademarked nouns
No one can deny that consuming too much sugar is a big problem in the Western world. So big, in fact, that in recent weeks alone we’ve learned via the mainstream media that drinking sugary soda is responsible for:
- increasing the risk of heart disease, even in skinny women (NBC);
- 75% of 15-year-olds in Ireland having tooth decay (Irish Examiner); and
- causing teen violence (Fox News – who else?).
Yes, there are terrifying health stories about sugar everywhere. Sugar is now officially a bad guy. Up there with pedophiles, hand germs and Dr Conrad Murray, sugar is now a demonised villain that 9 out of 10 consumers would like to banish forever.
Wherever there’s fear, the marketplace always has a solution. So what’s the answer here? Apparently someone suggested that we could eat sweet treats in moderation, buy less processed food and get plenty of exercise, but that guy has been fired now. Why would we do that when there’s a more commercially lucrative option that could make some big corporations billions of dollars? Something that appeals to our inner lazy fat fuck who wants to be able to keep chugging down cans of soda every day without making any adjustment to his lifestyle?
Artificial sweeteners met our needs for a while, until they started getting a lot of bad press. Sweeteners like aspartame (aka NutraSweet) and sucralose (aka Splenda) have been blamed for everything from brain tumours to autism. Anyone who’s ever tried to look up information about these products on the internet knows that there’s a whole world of Googley terror out there for you to discover.
The jury is still officially out on whether sweeteners like aspartame are in fact dangerous (and when I say “officially” I mean in the nice governmenty sense, where introducing unknown synthetic compounds into the human food supply is ok by default and it’s only when
enough people start suing scientists can unequivocally prove that something is harmful that authorities like the FDA must take any serious action. Yep, “approve first, ask questions about the children born with two heads later”). But, rightly or wrongly, artificial sweeteners are now perceived by a significant segment of the population to be just as bad, if not worse, than sugar itself.
Some of you might be forgiven for thinking this is a “problem” for the food industry. But no, in the true spirit of enterprise, another public health scare is merely another marketing opportunity! Enter Truvia®.
Truvia® has zero calories. It tastes better than many sweeteners. It can be added to foods or even used in baking. And Truvia®’s biggest selling point is that it’s apparently “natural” because it’s derived from a plant. In short, it’s a miracle! Truvia® has started to get pretty big in the United States and it’s set to be rolled-out in Europe soon. It’s already used as an ingredient in some other product lines, too, such as certain diet versions of Coca Cola’s Vitamin Water and Powerade brands. I haven’t actually tasted it myself, and if you read on you’ll discover that this is because I have an aversion to eating anything claiming to be “food” that is referred to by a trademarked name and which is derived according to a patented chemical process.
Genuinely intrigued by this apparent miracle cure that fulfils mankind’s need to continue our recklessly sedentary, over-indulgent lifestyles that human bodies were never designed to cope with (and with no downsides – wow!), I wanted to find out what’s actually in this stuff. So I looked around. What I found was a fairly well-executed exercise in marketing bullshittery. None of the manufacturer’s claims are false in a strict legal sense, but I would venture that the product spin is somewhat misleading in a humanist, common-sense, stop-raping-the-world-for-a-profit-you-corporate-baddie sense. So while I can now have my zero-calorie cake, I won’t be eating it too.
The makers of Truvia® are keen to point out how natural the product is and how it is “born from a leaf, not in a lab”:
Ultimately, this little leaf gives back a recipe for sweetness that’s both delicious and zero-calorie guilt free.
Ding ding! Sound the “our lawyers approved this wording” alert! You really have to applaud that carefully crafted marketing copy. “Ultimately”, you say? Kind of like how poppies “ultimately give back” a recipe for heroin?
So what is this recipe? The plant is native to Paraguay and has been used as a sweetener for over 200 years. The makers describe their extraction process as follows:
The leaves are harvested, dried and steeped in water (similar to making tea).
Aww, that’s kinda cute. I’m getting fuzzy warm images of old ladies in traditional South American dress brewing tea in big wooden barrells. Oh, hang on – there’s more to the process. According to the makers, the leaves are then:
…further purified to make a food-grade product.
No details are provided about what this further purification process might be. If they don’t describe it, it must be pretty simple and unimportant, right? Not necessarily. To make Truvia®, one particular molecule (called rebiana) is isolated from other molecules that are present in naturally occurring stevia plant leaves. It takes more than just water to separate out this molecule from the crude plant extract; patent applications filed by Coca Cola, who have teamed up with the makers of Truvia® in getting the product to market (yep, this process is a patented invention) suggest that these guys might be applying solvents such as acetone, ethanol and methanol, among others. Does this process still sound like “making tea” to you?
Truvia®’s makers assure us that “rebiana does not undergo any chemical change” during this process, which appears to be correct, but isn’t that statement kind of beside the point given that the plant has been divided up at the molecular level in order to give us rebiana in the first place? The take home point here is that consumers of Truvia® should at least be aware that they’re not consuming stevia plant leaves in their natural state, quaintly brewed in a tea pot. They’re ingesting one particular molecule that has been separated from its naturally occuring molecular buddies.
So what ends up in the final product, besides the stevia extract? According to its makers, Truvia®’s ingredients also include erythritol and “natural flavours”. Erythritol is actually the main ingredient in Truvia® by weight (it’s listed first on the label, as required by US standards). The makers won’t tell us which plant they derive it from, but we know the food industry typically derives erythritol from corn starch, sometimes using genetically modified corn. There are claims that 30% of the erythritol in Truvia® is made from genetically modified corn, although I haven’t found an official source that confirms this. So why is erythritol added to Truvia® anyway?
Erythritol is used as a bulk sweetener in the Truvia® natural sweetener tabletop product to give it a sugar-like taste and granular appearance.
To give the product “a sugar-like taste”? Um… isn’t that the point of making an artificial sweetener? Let’s re-cap what we’ve learned so far: Truvia® is one isolated molecule from the stevia plant, plus a truckload of erythritol that’s probably derived from corn starch, some of which is claimed to be genetically modified.
What about the last ingredients, those “natural flavours”? What are they? The makers kindly answer this FAQ as follows:
Natural flavors are used to bring out the best of Truvia®’s natural sweetener, like pepper or salt or any other spice that would be used to heighten the taste of food.
I contacted the makers to ask if they could elaborate on what “natural flavours” they put in Truvia®, but all I got was the same response; they ain’t telling no one. Could these guys talk down to us like 3 year olds any more if they tried? Don’t you worry your pretty little head about what’s in it. We just put things in there to make it yummy in your tummy, just like when you put salt and pepper on your dinner! Fuck. Off.
But these flavours are “natural” so they must be ok, right? Again, not necessarily. The regulatory definition of a “natural flavour” includes a really broad range of things that are derived from a natural source, and there’s a lot you can do to the natural source in the lab in order to derive that flavour. Just because something starts out natural doesn’t mean our bodies can safely metabolise it, especially if it’s highly processed. Our society needs to graduate from its misguided understanding of what’s “natural”. You, me, the chair I’m sitting on, the nail polish remover on my desk and the food I’m putting in my mouth are all made out of atoms, the building blocks of molecules. The carbon atom in your laundry detergent could actually be a carbon atom that was once physically part of your great-grandmother’s left bicep before she died, decomposed and left all her molecules to be recycled back into the earth’s ecosystem. Smash something up enough at the molecular level, tinker around in the lab with the bonds holding atoms together, and you can derive a lot of things from something else. Don’t be fooled because something meets the legal definition of “natural”.
At the end of the day, the FDA has said Truvia® can be sold to the public. So it must be safe, yeah? It must have been tested, right? I looked around Truvia®’s website for some information about what kind of testing has been done. I couldn’t find much. Oh, wait a second: there’s some information available in the section designated for “Healthcare Professionals” rather than consumers. My bad!
Several attempts have been made in the past to petition the FDA for approval of stevia as a food additive. However, the petitioners could not provide sufficient data to the FDA to address key questions about the composition, quality and safety of stevia.
There had been some previous studies suggesting adverse effects of stevioside (one of the other related molecules found in stevia) on male reproductive organs, kidney function, male and female fertility and the health of offspring, yada yada yada. Oh yeah, and there’s some boring stuff about blood pressure and blood sugar levels for diabetics, blah blah blah. But those studies are apparently “outdated”. I’m a consumer, not a fancy pants healthcare professional. Don’t bore me with these details! Just make me my magical zero-calorie soda and shut up already!
Nutrition Wonderland has reviewed the scientific studies available and raises some interesting questions. Some of the available science, the stuff that says positive things, actually relates to stevioside, that other molecule in the stevia plant I mentioned above which is not rebiana (ie, not Truvia®). There is a further study which suggests that stevioside and rebiana are very similar – a study funded by the makers of Truvia® – but Nutrition Wonderland challenges the design of that study, describing the science as “very poor in quality”. Further, the only two published studies of the effects of rebiana itself on humans examined the effects over four (4) weeks and four (4) months respectively. Four months? That is not what I call a study designed to examine the “long-term” effects. Finally, there is no published study of the effects of Truvia® itself (that is, rebiana combined with all the other junk that gets thrown in).
Because today is Feel-Good Wednesday, I thought I’d also mention that the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington also wrote to the FDA in 2008, urging that further studies of rebiana be undertaken before products like Truvia® are allowed into the food supply. Why? Because some (but not all) tests by toxicologists at UCLA of steviol and stevioside (related molecules in stevia plants) found that these molecules can cause chromosome aberrations and DNA breakage, raising the prospect that they might cause cancer. Yay.
The thing is, Truvia® might be perfectly safe. There might be nothing wrong with it. We don’t know. But that’s just the point: we don’t know. We don’t know exactly what’s in Truvia®, and we don’t know exactly what they do to it in the lab. And the available scientific studies apparently leave a lot to be desired. Remember kids, DDT was a miracle once, too.
Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s staggering. It’s not about blaming individuals who choose to consume these products; I’m as guilty as the next person. (Although I avoid artificial sweeteners like the plague, I consume a lot of other nasty additives. I’m vaguely aware that there are serious health concerns about some of these, but I’m too lazy to learn about them and go out of my way to avoid every single one of them.)
The real question is, why does our society tolerate systems of law and government that allow big corporations to make a buck out of us this way? Would it be so hard to require the makers of Truvia® to tell us exactly what “natural flavours” they put into the food they’re selling us? Is it unreasonable to require testing of the actual product proposed to be sold (not a “similar” compound) that studies the effects on humans over a period longer than four months? Yes, it’s vitally important to have strong intellectual property laws in order to have a flourishing economy and promote innovation. But does this trump everything else? When it comes to introducing new, unknown compounds into the human food supply, does a corporation’s ability to make a profit out of its trade secret outweigh the importance of human beings knowing what they’re eating?
It’s not enough to sigh and say “big corporations and governments are just evil”. They’re not evil. They just do what we let them get away with. If enough people cared and showed some resistance, over time things would eventually change. When I say “resistance”, I don’t mean marching through the streets or “Occupy Truvia®”-type resistance. I mean, thinking about things before we buy them and refraining when something smells fishy. Asking questions, instead of blindly accepting the PR bullshit that is patronisingly fed to us by the corporations who can’t wait to get our money. Money talks, and if enough of us asked a few questions of companies and governments before gladly parting with it, we would see results. Or would we prefer to sit in front of our computers all day and drink gallons of zero-calorie soda? To wait until there’s an actual disaster, such as people getting sick or dying, and then take action by jumping onto the self-righteous bandwagon and suing every corporation that ever had anything to do with the product we couldn’t be bothered requiring our government to ask questions about? It’s actually our choice.
What do you think? Do you trust food authorities such as the FDA to make the right decisions for us?