Bad Article Dissection: Don’t Hate E. Coli Poop

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Patent for Artificial Sweetener Aspartame Verifies it is E. Coli Feces”

Screams the headline.  And immediately alarm bells go off on the BS meter.  I mean, E. coli don’t “poop”, right?

So here we go, my little urchins of health and common sense.  A quick BlindHysteresis BAD (TM): a bad article dissection, for your thinking pleasure.

1. Scare tactic abuse: “poop”.  The wording of this article was deliberately made to make aspartame (something I’m not personally a fan of, let it be known) sound gross.  Why else the enthusiastic overabundance of words like “feces,” “poop”, “excrement” and “fecal” when referring to the waste products of a unicellular organism that most definitely doesn’t have an anus?  The problem with this line of reasoning is that this then automatically makes other items that most humans don’t mind consuming, or are even addicted to, also “fecal” in nature.  Things like beerwinebreadyogurtmedical insulin and certain antibacterials and drugs all depend on the “feces” of microorganisms.  Most of these are also “harvested’ from large tanks of bacteria as they “defecate”.  But that doesn’t seem to make them “gross”.  So why should aspartame be, just based on this fact?

And I mean seriously, shape some decadent chocolate cake into poopy curls or pile yummy curry into a toilet-shaped bowl, and even I might get grossed out.  This kind of pure marketing logic is a BAD REASON to hate on aspartame.

2. Scare tactic abuse: “Deadly bacteria”.   “Deadly bacteria” being the source of aspartame production is listed as another reason to avoid this artificial sweetener like the plague (instead of the more logical reason: that aspartame makes drinks taste like metal shavings).  This shows a lack of understanding of just how much we EAT, SLEEP, POOP AND ARE bacteria.  Including E. coli.

Oh yes, even you, hand-santizier-drinking, fist-bumping, elbow-sneezing germophobe.  There is no question that E. coli of the pathogenic strain is decidedly dangerous, but your run-of-the-mill, gut flora E. coli is harmless, and in fact even necessary.  E. coli are “defecating” useful things like vitamin K (that you can’t make yourself) into your body right now, all the while keeping other rowdier bacterial residents at bay by taking up nutrients so they can’t spread out of control.

In fact, when this does happen, say after you take a rigorous course of antibiotics and massacre most of the bacteria in your gut, leaving you with a crippling and deadly overgrowth of a single bacteria (like C. difficile), it turns out that fecal transplants (which contain E. coli) can be a safe and effective cure.  Not just treatment, but cure.  How often can science say that?

This basically involves sloshing a healthy person’s feces/excrement/poop (notice the lack of “” since shiz just got literal here) inside a sick person’s intestines, in order to save his or her life by restoring competition for resources inside the gut.  So far from being deadly, E. coli can be helpful.  It all depends on the situation, and broadly painting E. coli as killers hurts their feelings.

(By the way, if you’re charmed by the idea of fecal transplants, check out all that and more in Mary Roach’s delightful recent book, Gulp.)

A BAD Conclusion: Don’t be duped into thinking this BAD was about the positives or negatives of aspartame itself.  This is about how poorly this article was written, and why you should be careful when you see articles praising or bashing anything by using these kinds of arguments.  Like MSG, aspartame has a bad rap that may or may not be earned, but these things should be argued using research data.  For a more measured article about aspartame, try this.  But no matter what you read, look for citations of primary literature whenever possible.  While primary research results are not a solid guarantee of accuracy or honesty (nothing is, really), it’s definitely better than relying on an article making un-cited comparisons to poop and using misleading scare tactics about evil bacteria trying to kill you.



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