Nuance in science
Two articles in the Oct. 21, 2019, edition of C&EN touch on two addiction crises in public health: nicotine and sugar. Two statements in these articles lack nuance that reflects important wrinkles in these evolving scientific fields of inquiry.
“Nicotine is a major driver of both brain and body diseases” (page 5).
Smoking, in particular cigarette smoking and other nicotine-delivery systems that expose the lungs to chemical and particulate pathogens, is indisputably guilty as accused. Nicotine per se, however, is a more complicated conversation. Nicotine has promise in treating a variety of ailments, most notably Parkinson’s disease (for example, Acta Neuropathol. Commun. 2018, DOI: 10.1186/s40478-018-0625-y), and painting it as an unmitigated ill, isolated from the delivery systems known to harm human health, has the potential to dampen promising uses of this substance for human benefit. With respect to the described research, recall that caffeine, in common noncaloric consumption settings, also raises blood sugar. Caffeine consumption, however, trends with lower rates of type 2 diabetes.
“Still, experts tell C&EN that most brands hope to avoid using aspartame in new products, as many consumers erroneously believe it is unsafe” (page 28).
What would we do without the experts? US Food and Drug Administration testing has declared a variety of nonnutritive sweeteners to be safe, including aspartame. The effect on human health of nonnutritive sweeteners in the sense of a more complicated brain-gut connection is an evolving story. Consumers might well ponder whether replacing sugar with sugar alternatives will, in fact, be the panacea experts hope to realize. Experts, after all, told us to replace fat intake with carbohydrate intake. Many believe following this advice led in a straight line to our current obesity crisis. Careful consumers will look to reduce all sweeteners in their diet and may, in an abundance of caution, sleep better at night avoiding nonnutritive sweeteners, and even some sugar alcohols, until research (for example, Nature 2014, DOI: 10.1038/nature13793) in this area plays out.
Barbara Simms Hudock
Cortlandt Manor, New York