With "Fake News" being called out in headline after headline over the last three months, it's perfect timing to put to death a persistent piece of fake news that's been circulating since the 1990's, claiming that the artificial sweetener known as aspartame causes cancer.
As the Smithsonian.com reported, after being patented in 1970 under the name Nutrasweet, aspartame became “one the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply,” according to the Food and Drug Administration. But what didn't come from the FDA was the "mid-90s aspartame panic" linking it to cancer, multiple sclerosis or depression. That was from an internet hoax.
Persistent rumors about aspartame’s links to seemingly every condition under the sun go back to what’s known as the “Nancy Markle” allegations: a letter that linked “ASPARTAME DISEASE!” to fibromyalgia, among other things, and said MS was methanol toxicity rather than a pernicious autoimmune disease.
It was supposedly written by Nancy Markle, who had recently “spent several days lecturing at the WORLD ENVIRONMENTAL CONFERENCE” on aspartame. A Google search of "world environmental conference" almost solely yields results related to Markle’s aspartame conference, which supposedly happened in 1995.
The kicker: Nancy Markle never existed. The letter was written by an aspartame truther named Betty Martini, writes librarian Paul S. Piper for Western Washington University. She's still around online, if you're interested. But the letter’s use of all-caps writing and conversational (read: poorly punctuated) tone to convey “scientific” information probably looks familiar for anyone who's spent any time on the internet.
The letter made its way around the internet for years and is still around as chain mail. It's the canonical example of an internet hoax, and it spread quickly. In a very different letter printed in The Lancet, one of medicine’s foremost journals, in 1999, researchers wrote that they had found over 6,000 websites mentioning aspartame, with many saying it was the cause of “multiple sclerosis, lupus erythematosis, Gulf War Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, brain tumors and diabetes mellitus among many others.”
Much like the anti-vax movement, based on a debunked paper linking autism to certain vaccines, the anti-aspartame still thrives more than 20 years later. "Out of all of the substances in our diet, why this one," the author asks adding, "It probably all goes back to the perception that “chemicals” are bad for you, whereas sugar, an honest, natural sweetener must be good."
Click below for PBS' video on the origins of the anti-vax movement:
Exit thought from the aspartame advocates: