Critic of artificial sweeteners pilloried by industry-backed scientists

Conflicts abound among industry's defenders, even on national TV

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Sweet 'N Low, packets shown here, contains the sweetener saccharin.

Kevin Lepp/Shutterstock

Susan Swithers is no stranger to food industry criticism.

In fact, the Purdue University professor anticipates a swift public relations blitz from trade groups representing diet- and low-calorie food companies every time she publishes a study about the health effects of artificial sweeteners.

“They reflexively put out a press release that spins it as, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the study,’” says Swithers, a professor of behavioral neuroscience who has been researching artificial sweeteners for the past decade. “I’m sure I’m on somebody’s Google Alert at this point.”

Still, even Swithers was surprised by the way in which the diet food industry attacked a paper she published last summer that raised health concerns about popular sugar substitutes used in snack foods and diet drinks. In her widely publicized work, published as an opinion article in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, Swithers reviewed recent studies on artificial sweeteners and concluded that people who frequently consume sugar substitutes “may … be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

Seizing on the “opinion” tag, the food and beverage industry responded quickly. The American Beverage Association, for example, dismissed the paper’s findings, arguing that it was “not a scientific study.”

But perhaps the strongest, most wide-ranging attacks came from the Calorie Control Council, a lesser-known industry group with an innocuous-sounding name, a long history and a penchant for stealthy public relations tactics. The organization, which is run by an account executive with a global management and public relations firm, represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry. But it functions more like an industry front group than a trade association.

In criticizing Swithers, the Council relied on industry-funded scientists, bloggers and dietitians — it even wrote a letter to the professor’s university demanding that the school stop promoting “biased science.”

“The intimidation tactics, going to somebody’s employer, it just seems to go beyond the realm of what’s reasonable,” says Swithers, who disputes the “opinion” critiques by noting that her paper was peer-reviewed and based on her assessment of recent scientific studies conducted about artificial sweeteners. “But I guess that’s par for the course in their world.”

Indeed, tracking the Calorie Control Council’s efforts to discredit Swithers’ paper on artificial sweeteners provides a lesson in how the food and beverage industry will go to great lengths — and often use questionable tactics — to protect its interests. With a brand new artificial sweetener about to hit the market, and with the science still unclear about the safety of sugar substitutes, industry’s efforts to discredit science unfavorable to their interests are unlikely to end anytime soon.

“This isn’t personal,” Swithers acknowledges. “This is about somebody’s bottom line."

Uncertain science

The global market for artificial sweeteners is expected to reach $2 billion by 2020. Fueled by weight-loss campaigns that promote low-calorie diets, sugar substitutes like aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) have become increasingly popular as consumers seek to shed calories without giving up sweet foods and beverages.

Artificial sweeteners are considered safe food additives by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To date, the federal agency has approved six “high-intensity” sweeteners to be used in products like soft drinks, baked goods and chewing gum. Advantame, a powerful sweetener 20,000 times sweeter than table sugar, was approved by the federal agency in May.

“All of the approved high-intensity sweeteners have been thoroughly studied and have a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers under their approved conditions of use,” FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman wrote in an emailed response to questions.

But while many studies — some funded by the food industry — have concluded that artificial sweeteners are safe additives that can help people lose weight, others have associated them with short- and long-term health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease — even cancer. The conflicting studies have sparked seemingly endless debate among scientists, health professionals and consumers.

Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says artificial sweeteners should be used like a nicotine patch to help wean people off of sugary foods and beverages that are more clearly tied to weight gain and diabetes. But when it comes to long-term health effects, he says, “There is some element of unknown in most of the artificial sweeteners.”

“Industry will of course say, ‘This has been approved by the FDA and tested,’” says Willett, who was the target of industry criticism for a 2012 study he co-authored that raised the possibility that aspartame could be linked to cancer. “But I think the public needs to be aware that this is not absolute evidence of safety."

Industry attacks

If the public had any fears about the safety of the artificial sweeteners, Swithers’ paper only added to them. That’s probably why the Calorie Control Council acted so swiftly —and strongly — when the scientist’s conclusions made national headlines.

“Today an opinion article published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism claimed to review ‘surprising evidence on the negative impact of artificial sweeteners,’” Beth Hubrich, the Council’s executive director, wrote in a blog post on Council-run website TheSkinnyOnLowCal.org. “But what’s really surprising, especially for a scientific journal, was the lack of sound data to back up the author’s highly speculative assertions.”

Hubrich quoted from a Council press release citing John Fernstrom, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who expressed skepticism about Swithers’ conclusions.

“Dr. Swithers largely fails to point out that many intervention studies have been conducted over the past few decades, and uniformly show that when artificial sweeteners are introduced into the diet … fewer sugars and calories are ingested, and body fat content and body weight are reduced,” Fernstrom said. “So, artificial sweeteners by themselves do not make people fat (or diabetic).”

Not mentioned is that Fernstrom is a scientific consultant for Ajinomoto, a Japanese food and chemical company that makes aspartame. Nor did the Council’s press release mention that he and his wife, Madelyn Fernstrom, a professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, have ties to industry groups. 

John Fernstrom is the scientific advisor to the Committee on Low-Calorie Sweeteners, whose members include Ajinomoto, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. His wife, who is the diet and nutrition editor for the NBC Today show, is on the board of trustees for the International Food Information Council Foundation, which has been labeled an industry front group by public health advocates.

In May, Madelyn Fernstrom appeared on a Today show segment to talk about sugars and artificial sweeteners. During the segment, she noted that low-calorie sweeteners were recognized as safe by the FDA, and she cited a just-released study that found that drinking diet beverages containing artificial sweeteners might help people lose more weight than drinking water.

The Today show’s nutrition editor did not mention to viewers that the study was funded entirely by the American Beverage Association and that two of the study’s authors received consulting fees from Coca-Cola. She also did not mention her husband’s ties to the manufacturer of aspartame.

John Fernstrom told the Center for Public Integrity that his industry ties have “no impact on my work.” He says the most reliable scientific studies show that sugar substitutes are safe, and he notes that “some of the best research is done” by industry.

Fernstrom says companies have a strong incentive to thoroughly test their products to make sure they are safe. Otherwise, if they turn out to be harmful to consumers, “you’re out of business,” he says. “Industry is not the enemy.”

A University of Pittsburgh Medical Center spokeswoman for Madelyn Fernstrom did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Megan Kopf, a spokeswoman for NBC, issued a statement: “We take disclosure issues seriously and are currently looking into this.  Madelyn has been a long-time contributor to NBC News and has always reported with integrity.”

Not only did the Council attack Swithers’ paper from the perspective of a scientist, but it also criticized it from the perspective of the everyday mom. Blogging at ILoveDietSoda.com, Council writer “Jenni PS” — a “busy woman” who gets through the day thanks to “the little things, like a can of diet soda” —lamented “another ridiculous opinion piece about the ‘downsides’ of low-calorie sweeteners.”

Council consultant Robyn Flipse, a dietitian who also represents food companies like Splenda, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods, took to the comments section of an NPR story to critique Swithers’ paper. “Low calorie sweeteners are not making us fat or sick,” Flipse wrote in a lengthy comment. “Inactivity, excess calories and unbalanced food choices are.”

In an interview, Flipse told the Center that her ties to industry, including the Council, have no influence on her work. “I’m never told what to say,” she says, adding that she tries to help correct misinformation spread online and in the media about artificial sweeteners. Talking points “are not fed to me,” and she says the Council never tells her where or when to comment.

Perhaps the most brazen of all the Council’s attacks was its formal letter to Purdue University.

“The Council has serious concerns with the University’s actions in promoting Dr. Swithers’ opinion,” Council President Haley Curtis Stevens wrote to Purdue’s assistant vice president of marketing, noting that the paper “ignored decades of research affirming the safety of low-calorie sweeteners.”

“Promoting biased science, we feel, is not acting in the best interest of public health,” she wrote.

Amy Patterson Neubert, a Purdue spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Center that the university has always supported Swithers' work. "Even a year after the publication of her peer-reviewed opinion piece," she wrote, "she still receives requests for interviews, which we help facilitate."

The Council's letter to Purdue was followed by more criticism from yet another industry ally. 

In response to the Purdue professor’s conclusions, two scientists from Baylor College of Medicine — Craig A. Johnston and John Foreyt — submitted a letter to Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, the journal that published Swithers’ paper.

In their letter published online, the authors called Swithers’ paper “highly selective, misleading, and biased” and noted that artificial sweeteners “are safe and provide individuals seeking to lose or maintain weight a healthy alternative to help to decrease caloric consumption.”

But the authors did not submit a conflict of interest statement with their letter. Only after the journal posted the letter online did editors learn that Foreyt had ties to industry. A spokeswoman for the journal confirmed that editors contacted the authors asking them to submit a disclosure statement to be published in the journal’s print edition.

“Dr. John P. Foreyt received grants, honoraria, donations, and consulting fees from numerous food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as other commercial and nonprofit entities with interests in obesity,” the conflict of interest statement read. “He has served and is currently serving as a board member for multiple food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies.”

Foreyt is listed on a Council website as an advisor to the trade group, but Dipali Pathak, a spokeswoman for Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in an email to the Center that “he has not worked with them for years.”

As for the authors’ omitted disclosure statement, she wrote, Foreyt and Johnston “were not asked to disclose any information on ties to the industry. Once the editor asked them to disclose this, they sent the information and the letter was republished with this information.”

Trade association or front group?

The Calorie Control Council, established in 1966, isn’t your typical trade association. For one thing, it’s run by Kellen Company, a global management and public relations firm. Stevens, the Council’s president, is an account executive at the PR firm.

Unlike other trade associations, including the International Sweeteners Association and the American Beverage Association, the Council does not publicly list its members. Nor does its website reveal its board of directors, which can be found on the trade group’s annual tax documents.

According to the Council’s 2012 tax filing, the board  includes officials from soda companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, as well as artificial sweetener manufacturers like Ajinomoto and Merisant Company.

The Council orchestrated its first major public relations campaign in 1977. In response to an FDA proposal to ban the first artificial sweetener —saccharin — after studies linked it to cancer in rats, the industry group took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers discrediting the science behind the proposed ban. The ads encouraged readers to contact government officials and “let them know that you support postponement of a ban” until further studies on saccharin were completed.

The Council’s “media campaign was phenomenally effective at mobilizing consumers of artificial sweeteners for political action,” Carolyn de la Pena, a professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis, wrote in her 2010 book “Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.”

The ban on saccharin was never implemented, and the food additive remains on the market today.

Despite playing an integral role in helping save saccharin, de la Pena says the Calorie Control Council never became a household name. Nor did it become widely known during the debate over aspartame.

The Calorie Control Council was “the invisible force behind the approval of aspartame,” she says.

Today, most Americans have probably never heard of the Council, but they may have come across a website run by the trade group — without realizing that it’s controlled by industry.

The Council operates a number of industry-friendly websites, including aspartame.orgsucralose.org and saccharin.org. None of the sites disclose that the Council represents companies that make low-calorie, reduced-fat foods.

On the aspartame site, for example, the Calorie Control Council only describes itself — in small print at the bottom of the home page — as a “non-profit association” that “seeks to provide an objective channel of scientific-based communications about low-calorie foods and beverages, to assure that scientific and consumer research and information is made available to all interested parties.”

Government posts industry sites

Even the government has  fed into the impression that the Council is an independent source of information about artificial sweeteners. Type “FDA and artificial sweeteners” into Google, and the top search result is a webpage run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The page about sweeteners includes two links to Council-run webpages, including one called the “Aspartame Information Center.”

In an emailed statement, Stevens indicated that the Calorie Control Council clearly states on its “About” page on its CalorieControl.org website that the group represents “the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry.”

But the description of the organization is not included on all of the other websites the Council runs.

In her statement, Stevens wrote that artificial sweeteners “can be important tools for people who wish to manage their carbohydrate and/or caloric intake.” Without directly mentioning Swithers, she also defended the Council’s response to the Purdue scientist’s paper.

“When studies do not meet certain acceptable scientific criteria, including peer review, reproducibility, and study design quality,” Stevens wrote, “the Council addresses those studies through thoughtful outreach to relevant parties.”

Public health advocates critical of food industry influence say the Calorie Control Council’s public relations strategy, as evidenced by its attempts to discredit Swithers’ paper, follows a well-established industry playbook: “Attack the science, recruit sympathetic scientists, do public relations, and then do everything possible behind the scenes to protect the industry,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who has written a guide to food industry front groups, says the Council operates “mostly under the radar, which is part of what makes them effective.”

But despite being relatively unknown, she adds, “the fact that they’ve been able to create confusion and doubt over the studies that question the safety of artificial sweeteners means they are highly effective."