American consumerism is currently divided between two extremes. At one end, there is the well-known casual naturalism, which favors all things organic and despises the artificial. I call this casual because because it is part of the otherwise unnatural modern lifestyle. Though commonly mocked, casual naturalism has moved well beyond its marginal status to influence broader consumer trends. As an example: a majority of people check to whether the food they buy is natural.
That said, there’s another consumer group that doesn’t fear the artificial at all. 41 percent of US adults knowingly consume artificial sweeteners, and that figure has been growing. Of course, sugar substitutes aren’t the only synthetic food Americans consume. Yet, the issue of their safety is divisive enough to use them as a metonym for the artificial. Other manufactured foods are either widely used and thus less controversial or are no longer actively debated, as they are clearly unsafe. However, despite the ongoing controversy surrounding sugar substitutes, their popularity continues to increase.
Strangely, then, both the natural and artificial consumer trends are on the rise. The existence of this dichotomy is confusing. While other consumer trends are a matter of preference or marketing, this one is about food safety. More than half the market believes that sugar substitutes are unhealthy or even dangerous, and the media reflects that suspicion. We would expect this to scare the remaining 41 percent away from synthetic sweeteners. In fact, it does not.
As someone who has gone back and forth on this issue, ditching artificial sweeteners and coming back to them, I can help to explain the unlikely divide. Initially, I was not only consuming sweeteners, but a full-on advocate for them. My support grew beyond caring about the products themselves and into a campaign against what I saw as chemophobia. To me, and others in the media, artificial sweeteners represented science in the marketplace. The growing fear of them was thus a problem of science literacy. So, I made it a driving reason for my opposition to naturalist consumer trends.
However, this contrarian stance proved difficult to maintain. Its primary fault is that the science is by no means settled on this issue. In fact, that’s the same reason this uneasy natural-artificial equilibrium can hold. The synthetic product wave is so new, as is the natural response, that consumer trends have yet to crystallize around them. Moreover, because the literature on the topic is unclear, neither side can quickly beat the other.
That said, you’re not going to get that impression from science journalism. Major outlets have taken a definite stance on this unsettled issue. There are articles that say artificial sweeteners are clearly better for you than sugar, others that claim they are situationally better for you than sugar and a great many that argue they are definitely worse for you than sugars. This presents a problem to consumers, most of whom hear about research through science journalism. Clearly, then, it does not reach them objectively.
Instead, when journalists take a bold stance on a topic for which there is lacking or incomplete evidence, their claim takes precedence over their case. So long as the evidence is at least passable, speculative science journalism is more used for the personal validation that comes with that claim.
I recently came to realize that this is how I’d being using science journalism. I relied on it to justify my consumption of artificial sweeteners, readily accepting the evidence for their safety. Yet, the evidence isn’t strong. Though I quickly bought it, biased by my stake in the issue, I couldn’t use it to convince anyone else that sugar substitutes were harmless. As a result, science journalism eventually ceased to give me certainty in my choice.
It was then that I discovered the crucial advantage of casual naturalism: It is a bastion of certainty in health debates, because it simply cannot be bad for you. This benefit is incredibly important in today’s consumer environment. Nowadays, products like artificial sweeteners continually flood the market despite ongoing research and debates about their safety. This has made it nearly impossible to defend them, and so I’ve simply stopped trying. Health effects aside, they’re just not worth their need for constant justification and revaluation.
Contributing to that need is a dangerous history of industrial malfeasance that has led us to a suspicion of the synthetic. Time and again, American consumers have had to find out that widely used products have tremendous downsides. It’s almost cliché to use cigarettes as example, but there’s a striking parallel between the subjectivity that allowed them to be viewed as healthy and the way some are framing artificial sweeteners as “part of a healthy lifestyle.” Furthermore, there are countless other examples like asbestos, BPA and more recently, social media.
The recent but promising growth of casual naturalism may finally put an end to this vicious product cycle. Its total certainty has already lead it to dominate the market. As its goal is to simplify and give confidence in one’s health choices, it will also soon push the synthetic out. So long as there is any reason to be suspicious of artificial products, and American history gives us many, casual naturalism will triumph.
Finally, this shift is motivated by much more than mere risk assessment. With something so precious and vulnerable as good health, any unnecessary risk is too much. In gambling with your health, the cost of a bad bet is permanent. Hence, the possible danger of the artificial touches upon a deep, daily fear: that good health can be achieved, but we’ve ruined it through our own recklessness.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.