Saccharin and food beliefs

I’m a southerner and thus am addicted to sweet tea. (This means iced tea, obviously.) During the hot months, I brew my own at home in 1.5 gallon jugs. I probably go ~2 jugs a week.

… yeah.

“Real” sweet tea is made with sugar, but I use Sweet ‘N Low – saccharin. I buy it in bulk packs. When I tell people about this, some recoil – surely that can’t be good for you, right? Doesn’t saccharin cause cancer?

Saccharin does not cause cancer. Those tiny warnings everyone remembers – “this product has been shown to cause cancer in rats,” etc. – has been gone since 2000, since the FDA and the EPA reviewed those studies, which dated from the early ’70s, and concluded they were mostly bad science. But earlier controversies over artificial sweeteners, combined with modern-day paranoia about additives, have conspired to probably permanently stigmatize saccharin. Natural sugar (refined or not) is much worse for you on almost every level: it rots your teeth, fries your nervous system, is full of calories and more. None of that is true for saccharin. But the “cancer” smear has sort of set.

People’s food beliefs are strongly linked to their disgust reflexes, which are set early in life and extremely difficult to change thereafter, and are rarely rational. We Americans have our own culturally constructed mythology about what makes food “clean.” You can get a piece of six-month old, hormone-fed, antibiotic-bathed piece of chicken breast fried in day-old peanut oil, but as long as it is wrapped in shiny foil and never touched by an ungloved human hand, it is considered “clean.” Meanwhile, many European consumers find the notion of a genetically modified ear of corn, picked fresh from the farm, utterly, viscerally revolting. A lot of Africans I know relish a nice stick of boiled manioc wrapped in banana leaf, but are a little repulsed by the level of sweetness in a lot of American foods.

Once you start realizing how utterly arbitrary our food mythologies are, your world of food sort of opens up, but also collapses around you at the same time.


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