Aspartame--the artificial sweetener used in products such as NutraSweet and Equal--is wreaking havoc on the health of America. If you didn't realize it, don't feel too bad. I didn't either, until some concerned friends and relatives forwarded me a pseudo-scientific, faintly official-sounding e-mail message warning that the stuff is causing health problems ranging from dizziness to death.
Among other maladies, the widely posted missive blames the sweetener for killing diabetics in droves and causing epidemics of multiple sclerosis and lupus. The message also implicates the sweetener in Gulf War Syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, vertigo, depression, memory loss, and tinnitus. But what really makes readers pay attention is a far more terrifying claim: Aspartame makes people fat by causing an insatiable craving for carbohydrates.
Before you toss that case of Diet Coke, though, there's one more thing you should know: The aspartame letter is a cybermyth, the electronic age's answer to an urban legend. As with the Internet-spread tales of rogue doctors gutting business travelers for their organs and the "official" memo implicating the U.S. military in a 1996 TWA airplane crash, its claims have been thoroughly debunked. And yet, the message was so widely read and its claims so potentially scandalous that NutraSweet's manufacturer, Monsanto, and various health groups responded both in cyberspace and on paper. The American Diabetes Association issued a statement that the sweetener posed no threats to diabetics, and both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration--the agency that approved aspartame in the first place--disputed the veracity of the message.
Iain Murray, a senior analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the public's understanding of scientific information, explains that the aspartame hoax had been circulating in cyberspace for more than a year but only reached critical mass in December. Ironically, he notes, the one side effect that researchers have proven to be associated with aspartame--headaches for people with a certain syndrome--was not mentioned in the diatribe.
While this latest e-mail imbroglio may provide precious little information about the actual effects of aspartame, it does suggest how the Internet simultaneously facilitates cybermyths and disseminates information to counter them. For a full accounting of the aspartame hoax (and dozens of similar cybermyths), turn to the Urban Legends Reference Pages (www.snopes.com), a Web site maintained by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society. The site not only provides a handy, searchable database of such hoaxes, it provides an in-depth history of each one.