Health Hoaxes, Part 1

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 10:33
Posted in category Health

A good friend of mine recently forwarded an e-mail to me with the rather frightening title: ‘Will We Wake Up? ASPARTAME??? A Tasty Killer?’

Most of us have heard that people with a rare sensitivity to aspartame-
phenylketonurics-should definitely restrict intake of this sugar substitute. But to go beyond that fact and suggest that this common sweetener may be deadly was worrisome enough for my friend to pass along the warning.

Equally alarming, was the e-mail’s dire proclamation linking Nutrasweet® and Equal® to a supposed “epidemic” of multiple sclerosis (MS) and lupus. The message was particularly ominous to me because of my MS diagnosis several years ago. In addition, I’ve been a regular consumer of diet colas containing aspartame. And how many times have I poured these sugar substitutes into my coffee in the never-ending quest to limit calories?

Could any of this be true? Could my morning cup of java and my daily fix of diet cola have directly caused my MS?

According to credible health organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, the answer is a definitive “no.”

In fact, an FDA Consumer magazine report asserts aspartame’s safety for the general population as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” with “more than 100 toxicological and clinical studies.” 1

As I continued to check out the contents of the e-mail message, I discovered that this was just one example of a growing cyber-chain of hoaxes that link real health concerns to misinformation; and then forward the frightening permutation from one online inbox to another.

Consider the Source

It turns out that this particular “e-scare” has been flooding Internet mailboxes for well over a year now. Since the message associated the so-called “World Environmental Conference” with the reputable Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, I checked the Foundation’s site to determine their position on the issue. In short, the MS Foundation denies any relationship with this “Conference” and says,

“In summary, this series of allegations . . . are almost totally without foundation. They are rabidly inaccurate and scandalously misinformative.”

In checking with another established and reliable authority-the National Multiple Sclerosis Society-I found a clearly stated position that “none of the claims in the article were supported by scientific evidence”3

The lesson here is clear: consider the source. Always check healthcare information you receive online with trustworthy sources. If a scientific study or an organization is cited, check it out. It’s easy enough to find an organization online-if it truly exists. Fortunately, there is a wealth of data on the Web that can help you verify the veracity of these claims.

Unfortunately, the motives behind the creation and dissemination of these inaccurate and misleading reports are uncertain. How and why do these online health scares get started in the first place?

An E-Scare Is Born

With the advent of the Internet and messaging technology, we are living in an always-connected, 24/7 existence. The capability to spread misinformation with the speed of a plague has meant that old-fashioned chain letters have been trumped by new-fangled cybermail. In short, an electronic Internet hoax can reach substantially more people than a handwritten letter making the snail mail rounds of the postal system.

Internet hoaxes and other “urban legends” generally give the reader pause, because at first glance, there seems to be a kernel of truth to the missive. Typically, the fraudulent report will provide references to vague scientific studies, or mention a well-known product or manufacturer.

Many of these messages are formulated around a topic that may have been in the news recently, or is known to be of concern to consumers.

For example, the recent discovery of genetically altered corn found in some brands of taco shells is a real story of true concern to consumers. A prankster could use that news story as the basis of an e-mail hoax; embellishing the report with fabricated statistics, dubious scientific references, and outright lies.

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