Wednesday, July 10, 2013

(More) CNN Chemophobia: What's a Chemical, Again?

(For more posts in this series, please click here and here...)

*PLEASE NOTE: The text of the original CNN article has changed!*


Hey there, Cable News Network. We really have to stop meeting like this.

The latest snafu comes from CNN's Chart health blog courtesy of Twitter contact (and fellow blogger) Marc. The piece recaps an Opinion column written by Purdue neuroscientist Susan Swithers, which explores a strange and interesting phenomenon of artificial sweeteners: apparently, overconsumption of these compounds can fool the body into reacting as if sugar (glucose) were present, leading to unforeseen metabolic conditions.

The quibble comes a few paragraphs down, where the train falls off the track (emphasis mine):
"There are five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners: acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), neotame, saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low), and sucralose (Splenda).  
All of them are chemicals. “Saccharin was one of the first commercially-available artificially sweeteners, and it’s actually a derivative of tar,” says Swithers. 
Natural sweeteners, like Stevia - which has no calories and is 250 times sweeter than regular sugar - is not a chemical, but is still a processed extract of a natural plant, and increases your health risks similar to artificial sweeteners."
Wait, what did I just read? From a neuroscientist, no less! (perhaps a misquote?)

One of these comes from a plant.
But all of these things are chemicals
1. Stevia, a commercial FDA-approved non-nutritive sweetener, is most certainly a 'chemical.' I've included a handy graphic (right) in case anyone was confused.

2. That first statement in the second paragraph? Quite true; all five compounds listed certainly are chemicals, too! Kudos for that one.

3. Can I tell you how tired I am of fighting against the "everything from tar = bad!" mentality pervading modern-day society? Anyone dusting off that tired chestnut needs to rub their eyes (hard) and look around. They probably recorded the line using a polymer-based recorder (made from tar). On interview day, both folks probably wore synthetic fibers (made from tar) and sat on plastic chairs (made from tar). They may have quaffed their thirst from water bottles (made from tar) or eaten a Twinkie (made from tar). Perhaps they drove to work that day, using gas (made from tar) in their car (made from tar...well, and rocks), down a highway (made from tar) singing to a CD (made from tar) and passing farm stands selling fruits and vegetables (made from dirt, gases, and chemicals).

Until next time, CNN. And there will, of course, be a next time.

Update, 7/10/13: Fixed small error in steviol structure.
Update, 7/11/13: A commenter points out that stevia sweetness relies on glycosides; I'd originally drawn the aglycone above. Fixed, Thanks!


  1. What in TARnation!?

  2. Outrageous. Who listens to CDs any more?

    1. Right, right. You listen instead on solid-state devices (made from rocks), through headphones (made from tar).

  3. I believe the sweetness of stevia predominantly comes from steviol glycoside (you drew the aglycone)

    1. Sure thing. Will note in text, at bottom. Thanks!

  4. If everything from tar is bad, then why is there so much Red 40 in almost all processed foods? I don't understand this.