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Artificial Sweeteners Debate - ProEssay

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Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are much sweeter than sugar. As a result, they can deliver equivalent sweetness to sugar, but at much lower volume. The result is that they deliver the needed sweetness to a food or beverage, but do not deliver any calories in the process. It is for this reason that artificial sweeteners have become popular, and they are found in many food products, including those that are specifically marketed as diet products. They have a number of benefits that make them attractive -- they do not cause tooth decay, and they can be used to control both weight and diabetes (Mayo Clinic, 2015). Many people feel that artificial sweeteners are dangerous, however, and that they should be banned. This assertion, however, is not supported by science, and in any event it violates the fundamental role of government regulation with regards to food products. Artificial sweeteners should not be banned.

Default Position

Since the question at hand is whether or not artificial sweeteners should be banned, the starting position for the argument has to be aligned with that of the FDA, which is the regulatory body that governs whether or not a food or additive is allowed or not. In the case of artificial sweeteners, each one has been subject to specific approval from the FDA, as a food additive. This means that prior to FDA approval, artificial sweeteners must undergo premarket approval, during which it must be demonstrated that the sweetener is safe under normal usage. During the premarket review, the FDA establishes an "acceptable daily intake" level. In the case of sucralose, this would be the equivalent of 23 of the little coffee packets, and in the case of aspartame it would be 75 of them for a 60k person (FDA, 2014). The question of whether or not to ban something boils down to a question of science -- is it safe or is it not? The FDA's default position is to allow any food additive that has been shown to be safe.

The FDA's default position is the only reasonable one to take, it should be noted. In a free market society, government agencies such as the FDA exist to safeguard against unhealthy products. Consumers cannot reasonably be able to conduct laboratory experiments on their own to determine the safety of a food additive, so the government is in charge of ensuring food safety, hence the FDA. This system has been defined by the mores of our society. In general, we view government as something that should be a limited role, and usually limited to safety issues. Otherwise, businesses should be able to market products that are safe in whatever way they see fit. It does not make any sense -- and it is the wrong thing to do -- to make an exception for one category of product. Thus, this decision must be made on the basis of the available science.

The primary benefit of an artificial sweetener is that it delivers sweetness without delivering calories. The human tongue loves sweetness, and we are inherently attracted to sweetness in foods. Because of this, and our rising living standards throughout the 20th century, people became gradually more obese, and rates of diabetes increased along with that. While artificial sweeteners have existed for over 100 years, they started to become more popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Aspartame, arguably the most popular, was given FDA approval in 1981 (NCI, 2015). Thus, artificial sweeteners have a specific, discernable benefit, so arguably the downside of their use would have to be stronger than this benefit to make the case for these products being banned. The American Diabetes Association is pro-sweetener, not surprisingly, and they note that all artificial sweeteners except aspartame pass through the body undigested (ADA, 2014).


There are several counterarguments with respect to the apparently healthful nature (according to the FDA) of artificial sweeteners. One is that they change the gut microbiota, thus inducing glucose intolerance. Intestinal microbiota are built to digest sugars, but they are less capable of handling artificial sweeteners. What has occurred in that the frequent intake of artificial sweeteners has in some cases altered the digestive bugs in people, such that they have developed glucose intolerance -- they no longer have the ability to digest glucose (Suez et al., 2014).

There have been accusations at various points that artificial sweeteners are linked to cancer. Aspartame was once thought to be related to brain tumors and central nervous system cancers. Saccharine was thought to be related to gall bladder cancer. Yet, the National Cancer Institute argues that these claims are inconclusive at best, and in some cases debunked. The aspartame argument was based on a correlation between increase in certain types of cancers and the introduction of aspartame, except that more refined data showed that the increase in these cancers began eight years before aspartame was approved. The bladder tumors in rats, as it turned out, were the result of a mechanism not found in humans -- saccharine was found to increase cancer in rats, but does not in humans (NCI, 2015).


Thus, the evidence concurs with the FDA -- that artificial sweeteners are safe. If one needs a non-American source due to mistrust of the FDA, fine. The National Health Service in the UK also states the case: "Fears about their toxic effects have been around ever since the first sweetener, saccharin, was discovered in 1879. But none of these claims has stuck…" (NHS< 2014). Every time there is a claim made that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy, that claim cannot be supported by scientific evidence. If there are no genuine safety concerns, then artificial sweeteners cannot be banned on those grounds.


The NHS also notes that safe is not the same thing as healthy. But in a free market society, food regulations are about safety -- whether someone chooses to eat something, or whether something conveys a genuine benefit is not at issue. So the question is why would someone make an exemption to the free market to ban something that has been demonstrated time and again to be safe? There can be exceptions, and they are not always warranted. Uber runs into taxi monopolies, Tesla can't sell in Texas -- sometimes governments just randomly choose which industries to which they want to afford monopoly or oligopoly protection. But the sugar industry does not seem a likely candidate. For as much sugar as America produces, it also imports a lot of sugar as well. American sugar policy is already bordering on the unethical, implementing tariffs and quotas in violation of NAFTA and WTF commitments to prop up the U.S. sugar industry -- the result of course being detrimental to consumers (Riley, 2014). While the sugar industry would doubtless benefit from banning artificial sweeteners, there is no ethical case to do so, given the deadweight loss that would result, and the violation of our commitment to free trade (Riley, 2014).


' Ultimately, the decision to ban artificial sweeteners lies with the FDA. The FDA is not especially interested on pathos arguments -- they are into hard science, and their mandate is driven by maintaining public safety within the framework of a capitalist system. The FDA is not an organ by which an industry can be protected, at the expense of another. Thus, there is no case for banning artificial sweeteners, unless they represent a safety issue. The FDA, for starters, does not look at the entire category of products. Each product is taken individually. For example, stevia is a plant extract that is approved under a different category known as generally recognized to be safe (GRAS), so did not even have to undergo the testing that the other artificial sweeteners had to undergo. It is impossible under the current legal and ethical framework by which the FDA operates to ban an entire category of product -- the case must be made for each individual one. Arguing that the FDA cannot be trusted would have to be backed by evidence or be little more than a straw man -- the bogeyman big government agency cannot be trusted by definition. That's just not good enough -- each claim needs data to support it.

This is where the science fails the opponents of artificial sweeteners. There have been many different claims over the years regarding this category of sweetener, but each one of these claims has been scientifically refuted. The science show quite clearly that artificial sweeteners are safe. One can argue, at best, that longitudinal studies have not been conducted on some, because they are too new, but the argument would only hold for some artificial sweeteners, and still does not constitute evidence that they are harmful.

If there is no scientific case against artificial sweeteners, and one accepts that we live in a free market society that rejects capricious policy-making, then one has no choice but to accept that artificial sweetener should not be banned.



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