dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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Will Fake Sugars Kill You?

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 1:26 PM EST

Sugar kills. The delicious white crack has been linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's. So what's a person with a sweet tooth to do? Artificial sweeteners are a tempting choice, since they don't have calories or rot your teeth, and they're recommended for people with diabetes. But some of the fake stuff comes with its own potential health risks: Links to cancer in animal studies, reported side effects of dizziness and headaches, and exacerbated stomach problems, to name a few. And in one case, an artificial sweetener that the FDA had proposed banning was kept on the shelves after an aggressive advertising campaign from the pro-sweetener lobbying industry. Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, tells Mother Jones that, "We always encourage people to make informed choices by reviewing the credible research available." So without further ado, here's everything you need to know about the safety of your favorite fake sugar. 

1. Stevia (Brand names: Truvia, PureVia) 

Truvia.com

What is it? Stevia is short for Stevia Rebaudiana, a plant from the Chrysanthemum family that grows in parts of Brazil and Paraguay. The compound that makes the Stevia sugar is extracted from the leaves. It's used in the EU, East Asia, Russia, Mexico, Israel, and many South American countries, and is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? In the 1990s, the FDA rejected Stevia as a food ingredient after research linked it to reproductive problems and possible genetic mutations in rats. In 2008, the FDA approved a specific formula of pure Stevia—Rebaudioside A. PureVia and Truvia both contain the Reb A version of Stevia, which is FDA-approved. The FDA recommended daily dosage is no more than 1.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, for healthy adults. You'd need to have at least 29 Truvia packets a day to exceed that. 

What do the experts say? If your Stevia isn't made from Reb A—like, for example, the whole-leaf extract version that's sold at natural food markets and labeled as a "dietary supplement"—it hasn't been vetted for safety by the FDA. For Truvia and PureVia, the FDA concluded with "reasonable certainty that Reb A is not harmful under its intended conditions of use" based on studies it looked at concerning reproductive, blood pressure, and toxicity effects. Although scientific studies in the 1960s and 1980s found that Stevia-derived products decreased fertility in female rats and potentially led to mutations, the FDA concluded that those problems didn't apply to Reb A, based on additional research. (The World Health Organization has also determined that Reb A has no cancer link.) The FDA did note that one form of Stevia was deadly to rats at a dose of 15,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, but that's an enormous amount of Stevia. Atalanta Rafferty, a spokesperson for Truvia, says that "A panel of independent experts reviewed a dossier of all available toxicity and safety information relevant to Truvia stevia leaf extract, and concluded that Truvia stevia leaf extract is safe." Pura Via says on its website that, "An extensive library of more than 85 studies exists for Reb A and other components of the stevia plant which supports Reb A’s use in tabletop sweeteners." 

2. Aspartame (Brand Names: Equal, NutraSweet)

Soap.com

What is it? Aspartame is made up of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and methanol, all of which are found in common foods. It's about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? It was approved in the United States for limited use in 1974. But if you're taking more than 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight a day, you're exceeding the FDA's recommended daily limit. (A 165-pound person would have to be drinking more than 20 cans of diet coke to exceed that.)

What do the experts say? Aspartame has been controversial for decades. In 1987, the Government Accountability Office investigated the FDA after the sweetener was approved. It determined that the "FDA adequately followed its food additive approval process," but noted that 12 of the 69 scientists interviewed by GAO expressed "major concerns" about aspartame's safety.

In 2006, cancer researchers in Bologna, Italy, released the results of a $1 million, seven-year study of the use of aspartame in rats. The team found that, at a dosage equivalent to a 150-pound person drinking at least four 20-oz bottles of diet soda daily, the sweetener caused cancer in the animals. But the FDA shot down the study, noting that the researchers wouldn't give them all of their information, and found major shortcomings in the data that was available. According to the FDA, five other cancer studies found that the sweetener was safe. The American Cancer Society says on its website, "Aside from the possible effects in people with phenylketonuria [a rare genetic disorder], there are no health problems that have been consistently linked to aspartame use​" but adds that "research continues." The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that Americans avoid it on the basis that the independent studies have found that consumption of aspartame causes cancer in rodents (although again, not in humans), and it's been anecdotally linked to other health issues. In a 2002 FDA report, reported aspartame side effects included nausea, heart palpitations, headaches and depression, among other things. NutraSweet and Equal both say that its products are very safe. "Aspartame offers one simple step in helping people move closer to achieving a more healthful diet," notes NutraSweet's website. 

3. Sucralose (Brand Name: Splenda)

Splenda

What is it? Sucralose is a chemical that's produced by chemically reacting sugar with chlorine. It's about 600 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Sucralose was approved in 1998. The FDA recommended daily dose is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. 

What do the experts say? There have been more than 110 studies on sucralose over a 20 year period, and the American Cancer Society says the studies have shown "no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health." The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that "sucralose is safer than aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, and cyclamate," but notes that people with inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal issues should try avoiding the substance, since it's been known to aggravate symptoms (Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, says that this finding "is not consistent with the extensive data base on sucralose and its more than 20 years of safe use.") In 2008, Duke University researchers also found that Splenda can harm intestinal bacteria, although that study was funded by a pro-sugar lobbying group, and Ballman says that "no regulatory agency has acted on the results from that study." In 2012, the same controversial research team in Italy that busted aspartame announced that sucralose increases cancer in rats, but the results of the study have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. "In contrast, more than 110 studies [have] proven the safety of Sucralose. Worldwide authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, and the World Health Organization, have reviewed these studies and confirm that results show no link between sucralose and any form of cancer," says Ballman. 

4. Saccharin (Brand names: Sweet'N Low)

Amazon

What is it? Saccharin is made from benzoic sulfilimine, a chemical compound that was accidentally discovered in 1879 when a professor, Constantin Fahlberg, was analyzing coal tar at Johns Hopkins University. He spilled saccharin on his hands and later noticed that the bread he was eating at dinner tasted sweeter, according to Elmhurst College. Saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Saccharin has been around since before the FDA governed food additives, but the FDA has put the acceptable daily limit at 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. A 150 pound person could consume 340 milligrams of saccharin per day, which is equal to more than 48 12-ounce servings of Diet Wild Cherry Fanta. 

What do experts say? In the 1970s, tests showed that high doses of saccharin caused bladder stones in rats, which could lead to bladder cancer, particularly in male rats. Studies after that found similar results. Initially, the FDA proposed banning the substance—but on Congress' recommendation in November 1977, the FDA kept it on shelves, with warning labels that the sweetener was found to be a carcinogen. According to Christopher Foreman, Jr.​, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a number of congress members fought against actually banning the substance, pushed along by the Calorie Control Council, a sugar substitute and diet-food lobbying group, which "launched an advertising campaign ridiculing both the FDA and the studies on which it based its decision." In 1991, the FDA finally stopped proposing to ban the sweetener, and in 1996, the warning labels were done away with. In 2000, the US National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens finally removed saccharin from its list. According to the National Cancer Institute, "the bladder tumors seen in rats are due to a mechanism not relevant to humans [and] there is no clear evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans." Stephanie Meyering, a spokesperson for Sweet'N Low, says, "Saccharin is the one of the most thoroughly tested food ingredients in the world and it has the longest safe human consumption record among non-nutritive sweeteners." The Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't convinced and puts it on its list of substances to "avoid." 

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If You're a Millennial, Black, or Latino, Good Luck Voting Quickly in 2016

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 7:00 AM EST

When I voted last year in downtown Washington, DC, I was able to walk down the street, cast my ballot, and get back to the office in less than 30 minutes. But according to a new report by two voting rights groups, the Advancement Project and OurTime.org, plenty of American voters weren't so lucky. According to their research, African Americans, Latinos, and millennials in Virginia and Florida—two key battleground states—faced significantly longer wait times than older white voters in 2012. This was largely because the former groups are more inclined to utilize early voting, which was restricted in both states last year. And according to the report, this new "time tax"—along with other voting obstacles, like strict ID laws—will likely continue to dampen voter turnout among these groups in 2016.

In 2012, Florida cut early voting from 14 days to 8 days, and lines were so long, more than 200,000 Florida voters gave up and went home, according to data collected by the Orlando Sentinel. The Advancement Project and OurTime.org report focused on 5,196 of the 6,100 voting precincts that were used last November in Florida—which faced some of the longest voting lines in the country—and found that young voters spent a disproportionately longer time waiting to vote. For example, in Orange County, which has the highest percentage of voters younger than 30 in the state (22 percent), precincts closed an average of 86 minutes after the 7 p.m. deadline, with one precinct closing five hours late. The report found that in Orange County, the trend indicated that the more voters under 30 there were at a certain precinct, the later the closing time.

"Regarding the number of people willing to wait in line to vote in 2012, there were others who didn't vote, and there is no guarantee that voters will always be able to wait so long to exercise their fundamental rights," says Katherine Culliton-González, director of Advancement Project's Voter Protection Program. The report makes the case that young voters have less flexibility with their work schedules, and when early voting days are cut, as they were in Florida, lines get longer. Millennials (defined in the report as people between the ages of 18 and 29) are also more racially diverse than the rest of the population, meaning that there is often an overlap between young voters and voters of color. This 2013 MIT report found that voters of color are also more likely to wait in line than white voters:

The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains that African Americans face longer voting times than white voters because they "tend to be concentrated in large urban areas" and "the most populous areas had longer wait times than those living in areas with fewer voters." But Culliton-González, from the Advancement Project, tells Mother Jones that her group's study disproves this, since their research found that there wasn't a clear correlation between longer lines and precincts with dense populations. She says that, in Virginia, for example, "unless a voter can prove they are sick, otherwise disabled, or have to travel for work on Election Day, all voters must vote on the first Tuesday in November. These limits are probably what caused the disparities, as due to socioeconomic factors, many young voters of color have less flexibility in their work schedules." Voting rights groups argue that all states should offer flexible early voting—but some states have done the opposite: North Carolina, for example, is restricting early voting from 17 days to 10 days, starting in 2014.

Culliton-González adds, "We are concerned about 2014, but even more concerned about 2016," since Florida and other states will likely not have enough early voting time so that voters can avoid long lines. (The Advancement Project didn't find evidence of the "time tax" in the state elections earlier this month, partly because voter turnout was so low.)

But even if early voting is taken care of, young voters of color are also more likely to be turned away from the polls because of identification requirements. This was true in 2012, even in states that didn't have voter ID requirements on the books (see chart below). In the state elections that occurred earlier this month, numerous voters complained of being unable to vote because of real or perceived voter ID laws.

According to data collected by the Black Youth Project, an activist group that does research on issues that affect African American youth, only 67 percent of Latino youth and 71 percent of black youth possess driver's licenses, compared to 85 percent of white youth. Additionally, three times more young black voters than white voters said that lack of an ID was the reason they didn't vote in 2012. The Advancement Project and OurTime.org have submitted their report to the Presidential Committee on Election Administration, President Obama's group that is tasked with finding ways to improve voting.

Vaginas Are Like "Little Hoover Vacuums," and Other Things Abstinence Lecturers Get Paid to Tell Teens

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 7:00 AM EST

I went to public high school in Montana, where at least once a year we were shuffled into the gymnasium for lectures from abstinence-only educational speakers on how to make "good choices." Young, sprightly twentysomethings, who often resembled Ken and Barbie, would dance around the auditorium playing Christian rock and trying to convince us that having sex wasn't cool. In between all the jokes and music, I learned that condoms cause cancer and that sex is a bad deal for women. Turns out, I wasn't alone. Across the the United States, public schools—even ones that teach comprehensive sex education—invite religious abstinence speakers to come in to talk to students about sex, and sometimes spread information that is factually inaccurate in the process. Here are five such speakers, many of whom have generated local headlines for their controversial presentations. And they might be coming to a school near you—they're all still active on the sex-is-bad circuit.

Justin Lookadoo: "God made guys as leaders." 
Lookadoo is a spiky-haired Christian lecturer who bills himself as a "professional Speaker who CONNECTS with the audience." He is on the road 200 days a year and on his website, he lists his age as "legal in every state." Lookadoo's presentations can be paid for "under many federal programs, including Safe and Drug Free Schools, Campus Improvement, Title I [and] Title IV." Last week, he caused controversy at Richardson High School in Texas when he gave a presentation for teenagers in which he said: "Girls, the reason it's so hard for you to succeed these days is not because of guys…You're doing it to yourselves," according to the Dallas Morning News. His online dating recommendations have also drawn ire from students and parents: "Men of God are wild…They keep women covered up" and "dateable girls know how to shut up." The Richardson High School principal apologized to students and parents, promising that "we will not invite this speaker back to RHS." Responding to the widespread media criticism, Lookadoo wrote on his Facebook page that "the complaints are based on relationship stuff [posted] on a website that I don’t even talk about in schools." 

Lookadoo.com


Jason Evert: "Girls...only lift the veil over your body to the spouse who is worthy."
Evert has two theology degrees and tours the country promoting abstinence with his wife, Crystalina Evert, with whom he runs the Chastity Project. According to Evert's bio, he speaks to over 100,000 teens each year. Evert tells Mother Jones he speaks to "lots of public schools" and his upcoming schedule shows that he's speaking next month at several in Texas. He says, however, that he removes all religious content from his public school presentations and is not paid personally for these events. Half of his honorarium for each event is spent on giving the students free copies of his pro-abstinence books and CDs.

Evert is passionate about women dressing modestly (or as he puts it, "Girls...only lift the veil over your body to the spouse who is worthy to see the glory of that unveiled mystery.") In this 2008 YouTube video, he says: "A culture of immodest women will necessarily be a culture of uncommitted men." He elaborated on those remarks for Mother Jones, saying that "true feminine liberation isn't about having the 'freedom' to dress like Miley Cyrus"​ and that that his views "could be judged as misogynist, but I think this would be an unfair assessment." He adds, "It's a joke to think the girl needs to be the chastity cop...but to reach [a] level of mutual respect in society, I don't think Daisy Duke shorts are going to expedite the process." Evert also maintains that birth control pills cause abortions. (In reality, they prevent conception, and if an egg is fertilized, they make the uterine lining inhospitable for implantation. The Code of Federal Regulations and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists define pregnancy as beginning at implantation.)


Pam Stenzel: "If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you."
Stenzel is a lecturer who, according to her bio, "provide[s] a structured and unambiguous message of abstinence that will mobilize and empower adolescents to make responsible choices​" and claims to speak in-person to about 500,000 young people annually. She makes about $4,000 to $6,000 per appearance and has an extensive line of DVDs. She was also consulted for President George W. Bush's abstinence programs. This April, at George Washington High School in Charleston, West Virginia, a public school, she allegedly made some female students cry by "slut-shaming" them. According to the Charleston Gazette, she said, "If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you" and claimed she could tell which teenagers are promiscuous by looking at them. Stenzel told LifeSiteNews that she never said those things, but acknowledged that her presentation was "a little tough." In her YouTube videos, Stenzel tells students that sex is worse for girls (because they "are much easier to infect and easier to damage"). She also asserts that the HPV vaccine "only works on virgins," and that chlamydia—even when treated—is likely to make women infertile, with a 25 percent chance of infertility the first time it's contracted and a 50 percent chance the second time. Her HPV claim is 100 percent false, and her chlamydia statement is mostly false. (Of women with chlamydia who go untreated, about 10 percent will develop pelvic inflammatory disease, which in some cases may cause infertility.)


Joi Wasill: "According to your health textbook, and all of the medical textbooks, and science textbooks, and biology texts, conception is when life begins."
Wasill is the founder and executive director of Decisions, Choices & Options, Inc., a Tennessee-based organization with strong Christian and Republican ties that has provided educational programs that have reached about 40,000 high school students (her organization is currently available for public school bookings.) For speaking gigs outside of the Nashville area, the organization charges for travel fees and a per diem. In May, she spoke at Hillsboro High School, a public school in Nashville, Tennessee, along with Beth Cox, a presenter for Wasill’s organization. One student recorded her presentation and leaked it to the press. RH Reality Check, a daily publication covering sexual health, noted the talk included a host of inaccurate information.

The speakers claimed that condoms have holes in them and a failure rate of 14 percent (it's actually less than 3 percent); that first-trimester abortions can cause infertility (the National Abortion Federation says they're one of the "safest" medical procedures); and that the morning-after pill is a "chemical abortion" (nope, it delays and prevents ovulation). They also said that "according to your health textbook, and all of the medical textbooks, and science textbooks, and biology texts," life begins at conception. Wasil tells Mother Jones that her curriculum is "based upon information obtained from the Center[s] for Disease Control, SEICUS [Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States], National Center for Health Statistics, the health textbooks adopted by the state, and other sources such as these." Teaching "sexual risk avoidance" is in accordance with the law, she says, adding, "the avoidance of the risky behavior that leads to infection, disease, and teenage pregnancy is the best outcome for all students and enables them to live healthy, productive and successful lives."

Pro Life in TN


Shelly Donahue: "Girls are more feelings-oriented, and boys are more facts-oriented."
Donahue is a speaker for the Colorado-based Center for Relationship Education, an abstinence-only education program that works with students in 42 states and has received millions in federal funds. In 2006, Donohue caused controversy at Natrona County High School, a public school in Casper, Wyoming, when she gave a religious-themed abstinence presentation. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, she asked students, "Do you get closer to your God or do you get farther away when you have sex?" (The answer she wanted: "Farther away.") She also said that boys are "wired" to like math, science, and numbers, and girls are wired to be more feelings-oriented. She held up a bag of noodles to indicate that girls "are like spaghetti, with their feelings about parts of their lives entangled," according to the Star-Tribune. (She told the paper: "The outpouring and the positive was so much greater than this one kid's complaint.") In a training video posted by the Denver Westword in 2011, Donahue tells students that if a guy gets sperm anywhere near a girl's vagina, it will turn into a "little Hoover vacuum" and she will become pregnant. (No. Vaginas don't vacuum sperm off the couch.) In another 2011 video, she says, "the boys want to love and respect these girls, and the girls won't let them. The girls are backing up the booty, the girls are being assertive, these girls are emasculating these boys." She continues to conduct sex-ed training programs for teachers on public Title V funds and is holding one this month in Greeley, Colorado.

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