This week Chipotle announced they are no longer serving genetically modified organisms (GMO), while Pepsi announced they are getting rid of aspartame in their diet sodas.
Pop quiz time: Are these decisions based on the science or are these business decisions?
If you chose business then you are correct. It doesn’t take an economics PhD to know that businesses make decisions to ultimately make more money. Really no problem there; that’s the essence of capitalism.
Capitalism: An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.
The issue is the ill-informed and illogical loop of consumer confirmation that results from such decisions.
Consumers are ill-informed and are worried about genetically modified (GM) foods and aspartame so they don’t buy them. Businesses take these things out of their products so consumers will buy. Consumers think they must have been “bad for their health” since the businesses took them out and use this as confirmation for their beliefs. See the problem?
Business decision made independent of science is of course nothing new. Look at food packaging.
- All Natural.
- Gluten Free.
- GMO Free.
- MSG Free.
- 100% Organic.
- No Artificial Sweeteners.
- And The List Goes On.
These are all ways for businesses to get us, the consumers, to buy. Consumers think these things matter, which they often don’t, so businesses address them to, you guessed it, earn more profit.
This is economics 101: supply and demand.
But if you are inclined to question, seek truth, and not blindly accept the messages from the media or so called nutrition experts, then you may have asked:
What does the science say about GM foods and aspartame?
The answer to both is quite clear: they are safe!
Genetically Modified Food
Lets start with GM foods. Instead of talking about studies, such as the 2013 review, which looked at nearly 2000 studies and concluded GM foods safe for humans 1, or the 2014 study which represented over 100 billion (with a B) animals and found no unfavorable effects in livestock health or productivity 2, I’ll reference 10 leading health and science organization position statements:
And if 10 agreeing statements on safety isn’t enough, here are 23:
Whether something is natural or not says absolutely nothing about its safety or healthiness; and how long it has been around says the same – nothing. Both are common fallacious arguments (appeals to nature and antiquity or tradition) that the anti-GMO crowd echo as if when they all scream together the claims become more valid (another fallacy – appeal to popularity).
All foods we have available have been changed through thousands of years of cultivation. Genetic modification is modern technologically advanced cultivation (simplified).
For reference, here is an image showing what some popular foods would look like without genetic modification:
Most anti-GMO claims are made because the claim maker has a problem with Big Agriculture, namely Monsanto. This is yet another weak and fallacious argument (genetic fallacy) and beyond the scope of this article or the scope of my care. This is about the science not public relations. But I will say that I was quite surprised to learn how much Monsanto pulls in relative to other big companies:
Far from the big bad wolf that people make them out to be.
Before I move on, lets get back to Chipotle for a second. First, although I understand that they are making business decisions, its important to note that they are perpetuating pseudoscientific “GMO” fear messaging. Lastly, their meats and dairy come from animals fed genetically modified livestock and their beverages contain genetically modified ingredients. This is hidden behind their “G-M-Over It” slogan.
To start, I appreciate that Pepsi cited consumer opinion as the reason they decided to take aspartame out of their diet sodas and not pseudoscientific reasoning, with their VP saying “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.” Diet soda sales have decreased because people fear aspartame so Pepsi takes it out. Again, that’s business.
Similar to GMOs, aspartame is controversial to the public. But controversy does not indicate a disagreement between scientists. On the contrary, and similar to GM food consensus, aspartame is the most studied food additive over the past 30 years and there is a compelling consensus among scientist and regulatory agencies that it is safe.
Before we get into the science, consider this for context. The FDA has set the acceptable daily intake level for aspartame at 50mg per kg of bodyweight per day. If we take someone that weighs 150 pounds (68kg), they would have an acceptable daily limit of 3,400mg. An 8oz diet Pepsi has approximately 118mg of Aspartame. That would come out to 28 diet sodas a day before reaching the FDA acceptable daily intake level.
If that’s not reason enough to stop worrying about Aspartame, then perhaps the science is:
This review 3 by the Council on Scientific Affairs concluded, “Available evidence suggests that consumption of aspartame by normal humans is safe and is not associated with serious adverse health effects.”
This review 4 concluded, “When all the research on aspartame, including evaluations in both the premarketing and postmarketing periods, is examined as a whole, it is clear that aspartame is safe, and there are no unresolved questions regarding its safety under conditions of intended use.”
This review 5 concluded, “Evidence does not support links between aspartame and cancer, hair loss, depression, dementia, behavioural disturbances, or any of the other conditions appearing in websites.”
This review 6 concluded, “Thus, the weight of scientific evidence confirms that, even in amounts many times what people typically consume, aspartame is safe for its intended uses as a sweetener and flavor enhancer.”
This experiment 7 investigated cognitive function in kids and concluded, “Even when intake exceeds typical dietary levels, neither dietary sucrose nor aspartame affects children’s behavior or cognitive function.”
What about cancer? Aspartame is not related as this review 8 concluded, “Epidemiological studies on aspartame include several case-control studies and one well-conducted prospective epidemiological study with a large cohort, in which the consumption of aspartame was measured. The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.”
This experiment 9 disputes the neuropsychologic and neurophysiologic claims with the conclusion that “Large daily doses of aspartame had no effect on neuropsychologic, neurophysiologic, or behavioral functioning in healthy young adults.”
And finally, this review 10 concluded that aspartame does not appear to have specific hormonal effects on insulin, cortisol, glucose, GH and prolactin.
The data is clear on the safety of GMOs and aspartame.
Of course science rarely drives public opinion (vaccines anyone?). Rather, consumers often form their opinions based on the best framed messaging. The media fear messaging plays to the consumer’s emotions, which ultimately drives buying decisions.
The scientific consensus isn’t buying Chipotle bowls or stocking up on diet Pepsi so it should be no surprise that these companies are catering to an ill-informed consumer market.
Unfortunately the public gauges claim validity based on the response of these businesses. For example, they might think “aspartame must be bad because Pepsi took it out,” or “GMOs are unsafe otherwise Chipotle wouldn’t be trying to get rid of it.” These conclusions are a result of the ill-informed and illogical loop of consumer confirmation.
Chipotle and Pepsi are not the only companies that have made changes to their products due to public opinion. Kraft, Nestle, General Mills, Subway, and McDonalds have all made similar changes recently as a result of growing concerns from their consumers.
Image is everything in business and these companies would rather accommodate a concern than risk declining sales.
In my opinion, the growing public concern over such things as GMOs, Aspartame, artificial sweeteners, Gluten (see here: http://wp.me/p4TIPB-P), and other food additives, highlights America’s missing of the bigger picture.
America’s waistline continues to expand and instead of consumers placing their time, effort, and concern into food amount, they’d rather worry about harmless food additives or modification. Instead of worrying about increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, they’d rather worry whether their doughnut is gluten free. Well I got news America, that burrito with sour cream, guacamole (yes you paid extra) and chips and salsa is 2,000 calories, whether it’s GMO free or not (which its not because you got meat in it).
Then again, it will all be justified with an Aspartame free diet soda.
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Yours in fitness and health