One of my favorite passages from Don't Eat This Book concerns accusations Spurlock casts against artificial sweeteners. Nearly all of them are based on Internet rumors, urban legends, and one solitary study that has long been discredited.
Spurlock, for example, writes the following:
"The FDA has said aspartame may be linked to some uncommon but troubling side effects, including headaches, hallucinations, panic attacks, dizziness, and mood swings." (p. 98)Spurlock's source for this is a 1999 edition of an FDA newsletter called the FDA Consumer. Here's what that the article actually says:
FDA calls aspartame, sold under trade names such as NutraSweet and Equal, one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved. The agency says the more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies it has reviewed confirm that aspartame is safe for the general population.In other words, Spurlock's own source makes the exact opposite conclusion he attributes to it. The article goes on to debunk each of these hysterical claims, one by one.
This message would not necessarily be apparent to consumers surfing the Internet, especially those who use Web-based search engines to find information about sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners. Websites with screaming headlines and well-written text attempt to link aspartame consumption to systemic lupus, multiple sclerosis, vision problems, headaches, fatigue, and even Alzheimer's disease. One report distributed nationally over e-mail systems claims that aspartame-sweetened soft drinks delivered to military personnel during the Persian Gulf War may have prompted Gulf War syndrome.
No way, says FDA, along with many other health organizations such as the American Medical Association.
Again, Spurlock and/or Putnam should probably explain how such a blatant misreading of a source made it into the book.
Spurlock also cites the Center for Science in the Public Interest as a second source for this claim. Regular readers of my blog by now know that CSPI is Nanny State central, and more than willing to hype up even the most dubious of food scares. Yet even here, Spurlock abuses his own source. Here's what CSPI says about aspartame:
Some people have reported dizziness, hallucinations, or headache after drinking diet soda, but such reports have never been confirmed in controlled studies . . . be wary of claims scattered around the Internet that aspartame is responsible for a wide range of diseases. Most such claims are not supported by studies.CSPI is somewhat critical of aspartame, but only in the sense that CSPI feels some people falsely believe that switching to aspartame will help them lose weight.
CSPI only mentions the maladies Spurlock associates with aspartame for the purpose of refuting them. That is apparently enough for Spurlock to draw a connection.
At risk of repeating myself, how in the world did such poor sourcing make it to publication?