The Sweet Tooth

“Fake” Sugar, Speculation, and Health Reporting

Reporting on supposed dangers of “fake” sugar is a self-replicating genre that seemingly never fades. The Washington Post this week published a prime example, telling readers:

“The food industry says sugar substitutes help people manage their weight and reduce intake of added sugars. But studies suggest that fake sugars can also have unexpected effects on your gut and metabolic health and even promote food cravings and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.”

The key words in that quote above – suggest and can – are critical ingredients for speculative reporting on “fake” sugar. Because they allow the writer to present speculation about the problems these sweeteners might cause as if they they are facts rather than speculation. Repeat the speculation enough and it activates the maybe we should be cautious response.

With all that innuendo in play, this week’s reporting from the Post can carry an inflammatory and false headline: “How fake sugars sneak into foods and disrupt metabolic health.” It all adds up to an engaging conspiracy theory.

Scientific Speculation to Fuel the Theory

All of this conspiracy minded reporting would not be possible without a steady supply of scientific speculation about potential undetected problems with the wide array of sweeteners.

In the Post article, reporters say a “rigorous study” shows that some of these sweeteners cause changes in gut microbes “in ways that are detrimental to your metabolic health.” But that study did not show any effect on actual health outcomes. Rather, it showed short-term changes in a lab value. The researchers noted that further research would be necessary to determine any clinical implications.

Another example of scientific speculation that fuels this reporting came in a recent observational study of an association between a sweetener called erythritol and cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks. It sparked many click-bait headlines, but at the end of the day, it was just one more correlation study with confounding factors that make conclusions about health effects impossible. In other words, it’s great fuel for further speculation.

Seeking Sweetness

Humans seek sweetness in foods and beverages. Cooks and food makers gladly comply and can make money by doing so. So we now have a food supply marked by an abundance of sweetness. Is the big bad food industry conspiring to “sneak fake sugars” into the food they sell us?

More likely, they are just selling us whatever we will buy in ever-increasing quantities. And thus, we have an excess of sweet food everywhere we turn. It may be that the real problem lies with the excess. Not the imagined conspiracy.

Click here for the sensational reporting by the Washington Post, here and here for further perspective.

The Sweet Tooth, painting by Ludwig Knaus / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


March 12, 2023