Aspartame. That little, difficult to pronounce word has been villainized and fetishized to such a degree that you would be hard-pressed to find a bigger buzzword in the current consumer climate. Its critics have implicated the chemical in everything from headaches to cancer.
Aspartame, largely known by its common name, Equal, is a victim of unfounded accusations and botched studies that have since been refuted. But in the court of public opinion, those facts matter little. Perception is king in today’s age, a harsh reality which led PepsiCo to drop the chemical from their diet brands at the end of this past summer. Citing flagging sales, the company claimed to be providing consumers with the product for which they had been clamoring. The plan seems to have backfired and now, over recent months, PepsiCo is leaking sales from their diet brands faster than ever. Still, the importance of PepsiCo’s declining profits and the wailing of their diehard fans over the change in formula pales in comparison to their skewed motivation and the utter mania of the market to which they attempted to cater.
Perhaps the most glaring piece of evidence to truly support the accusation of mania is the fact that Aspartame has yet to be dropped in any markets except for the U.S., and there are no plans to do so. Somehow in an era where the rest of the world is purported to possess scientific superiority to the U.S., American consumers refuse to listen to even international health agencies. For some reason, the customer base and general public refuse to believe the FDA despite the agency saying the exact same thing as its global counterparts: Aspartame is safe.
The fact that the chemical hasn’t been dropped in other markets is indicative of our collective health mania. Rather than taking the time to tackle something worthwhile like comprehensive and bipartisan health care reform we would rather lobby a company to change one of their main products and proceed to entirely fail to put our money where our mouths are in buying it. If removing Aspartame was really the thing standing between PepsiCo and healthy sales, we should have expected to see an uptake where instead we see only decline. It is indicative of this new and pervasive social media-driven activism where the general public clamors for things it cares little about in reality. Fooled into believing the mania of the populace at large, PepsiCo responded, but in the process only managed to further accelerate their decay and alienate ardent and avid customers. Because the harsh truth is this—we would rather sit around and listen to whackjobs like Dr. Oz tell us about the latest skincare trick and illumine the evils of Aspartame than listen to a government agency.
Word of mouth has nearly killed the concept of historical truth because when it comes to health care and illness we, especially Americans, desperately crave a boogeyman. We hate powerlessness and nescience, especially in the face of a prolific terror like cancer. Yet again, rather than putting our money where our mouth is and properly investing in robust disease research, we’re content to childishly extend our index fingers and crown a culprit. The asbestos case gives us something to wrap our minds around. All along we were ignorantly playing with a dangerous substance we took to be safe that ultimately resulted in so many cases of cancer. We so easily invest ourselves in this example because it implies that there is a simple answer, something just out of our grasp that we were too ignorant to see. A direct cause, a boogeyman.
This is why we fall hook, line, and sinker for the snake oil salesmen and health nuts that will point to use of this substance or that and outline our respective salvation or damnation as a result. Aspartame gives you cancer. Acai berries kill cancer and make you lose weight to boot. The droves of people who hear these things begin repeating them until it becomes a sort of gospel. And rather than addressing the scary idea that we don’t truly understand a horror like cancer we fool ourselves into believing the boogeyman is right there, just outside our grasp. Truth in the marketplace is dictated and established by the customer, but in this case PepsiCo was fooled into following the path of a debacle the likes of which haven’t been seen since New Coke. They were fooled into believing that the truth really mattered to their customers anymore when in reality it is more fragile than ever, a house of cards built from empty words and baseless speculation.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Editor