The Scares that Weren’t and the Fears that Fizzled
History is littered with overblown panics and overhyped panaceas built on foundations of shifting sand.
In 2020 alone, the Covid-19 pandemic has showcased more than a few of these—from infection preventatives to outright cures—each seriously discussed or outright pitched on cable news shows and late night infomercials as though they were gospel.
It doesn’t take much reflection to conjure memories of past hyperbole that affected each of us. For me, the first was in the late 1960s with the introduction of a new first of its kind product called Gatorade. Kids like me—convinced I was the next Hank Aaron—thought Gatorade was the key to transforming my minor league talent into major league dreams. Admittedly, the lemon-lime variety looked more like a sample that you’d leave at a doctor’s office and the flavor was barely palatable, but that didn’t matter. I just knew that Gatorade was the key to my future success.
However, soon after its introduction, a full-blown panic ensued because it contained something called cyclamates. In addition to citrus flavor, a sweetener called Sodium cyclamate was added to the recipe to make it more attractive to more consumers.
Following the panic, the FDA banned the use of cyclamates in 1969, a ban which remains in place in the U.S. to this day.
I vividly remember my mother tossing bottles of Gatorade in the garbage out of fear that it would cause cancer, leaving me distraught and wondering how in the world was I going to succeed Willie McCovey at first base for the San Francisco Giants without being fueled by Gatorade?
Sales dropped precipitously, but a quick transition by the manufacturer to a fructose sweetener allowed them to survive the threat. Now, of course, Gatorade is one of the biggest selling sports drinks in the world. Few remember how perilously close it was to extinction based on what turned out to be less than sound scientific evidence.
A closer examination of the history of cyclamates and the Gatorade scare uncovers the fact that that the ban was driven by a single study that showed massive exposure to cyclamates caused kidney tumors in lab rats. Multiple follow-up studies by credible scientists in the United States and Europe found no causal link to cyclamates and kidney cancer. Today, based on this evidence—what we consider “settled science”—cyclamates are widely used in 130 countries around the world.
Yet the FDA’s ban in the U.S. remains in place, and with it, the tally of unproven scares driving public concern. Cell phones and telephone lines give you cancer—or do they? Eggs, chocolate, and red wine will send you to an early grave—OR, if used in moderation, they will extend your life.
It’s hard to know who is telling the truth—or where the science really stands. This problem is exacerbated by relentless media coverage and a plethora of social media echo chambers that allow individuals to access only the information they need to affirm their views.
The Center suggests an alternative: examine the scientific evidence behind each of these claims and trust the results that have been time-tested and replicated by multiple sources—the “settled science.”
Or, as my dad used to say, “take everything that’s said with a grain of salt.” But be careful, too much salt can cause high blood pressure…maybe.