Circular References and Aspartame
With 900k views, this article by a New York times bestselling author and Osteopathic Doctor is the leading hit on google when you search for aspartame. This is the substance behind the “diet soda causes cancer” meme you’ve heard around lately. I recently wrote a research article about it for a final, which I’ll summarize:
Aspartame is the chemical name of the popular artificial sweeteners, NutraSweet and Equal. It has been in use as a sweetener since FDA approval in 1981, and generated controversy over consumer safety before and since. My initial hypothesis was that aspartame did pose some health risk in extreme doses in animal studies, but that these risks may not translate to the dosages approved for human use, especially considering that one would have to consume 21 cans of soda to exceed the FDA recommended limit. But I was well off the mark.
It turns out there is no established relationship between aspartame and health disorders in scientific literature, and those that support a link have been found suspect for legitimate concerns over methodology by the larger scientific community. It may turn out to be that elevated exposure to aspartame carries risk for certain diseases, but the rigors of repeated modern safety tests seem to have thoroughly evaluated that risk and found it inconsequential for normal consumption amounts (unless you are of the few Americans with genetic phenylketonuria, an inability to break down a common amino acid).
Dr. Mercola is responsible for perpetuating, and profiting from, decades of aspartame scaremongering. He runs an anti-establishment alternative health website Mercola.com where he sells published titles such as Sweet Deception and Take Control Of Your Health as well as a wide variety of supplements and alternative products from his online store. Are you surprised that he’s been a guest on the Dr. Oz show?
The first step in a critical analysis of a presented fact is to identify the source of the information and check the accuracy and context of information presented. Many, many symptoms and dangers of aspartame are asserted on his site with the authority of a medical professional. However, the only references listed on any particular page are for specific quotations, and not for any of the scientific facts presented. An example of such a reference is a hyperlink, prompted by “according to researchers and physicians studying the adverse effects of aspartame”, which points to a second article on his own website titled “Hidden Dangers”. This article again puts forth many similar statements of scientific fact that are antagonistic of aspartame, and this time includes numbered parenthetical citations throughout, but without providing the corresponding list of numbered references that usually accompany the article.
In a hunt for the source document, I performed a google search of key facts and phrasing and hit on a particular sentence that was copied verbatim on a number of alternative medicine websites. Several of these included the identical parenthetical citation as well, indicating that they were all plagiarizing from the exact same source.
I then refined my search and found a Google Books digital copy of the source article, found in a scam ebook of printed and rescanned internet articles that included the missing references. The original article was put out on the website ImmuneBasics.com (now defunct) by Pathway International in 2000 but which still exists as a company today and manufactures alternative supplements and products. They had licensed the article for distribution, and the original author was the same Dr. Joseph M. Mercola.
As should be expected at this point, the references from the original article were not scholarly or complete, and as an example listed “Studies by MIT neuroscientist Richard Wurtman” instead of including a proper reference to the study. Additionally, most of his sources were already more than a decade out of date. Let me be perfectly clear: He is reposting articles today that he wrote in 2000, based of information cherrypicked from 1985.
His website lists 61 studies that indicate the danger of Aspartame. Of them, only 12 were published since 2000, and many on this list are specifically addressed by other agencies such as the American Cancer Society as having been called into question over methodology. An additional 8 resources include non-scholarly sources and websites, including several of a Dr. H. J. Roberts. Both men have been advocating against artificial sweeteners, have been published prolifically on the subject, often cite each other’s work, and frequently cite themselves. One example from the list is a separate journal-styled paper which reflects strong personal opinions of Dr. Roberts, and in which every single source in the reference is an article he himself had written. This echo-chamber of bad information and circular references allows them to promote sciencey sounding articles in a deliberate attempt to appear legitimate and trustworthy.
TLDR: Alternative websites are selling you both the illness (an unfounded aspartame myth) and the cure (their book).