Information Asymmetries

If there's one thing everyone knows about diabetics, it's that we eat artificial sweeteners. Judge us if you must, but we find that artificial sweeteners make life tolerable. As a normal person, you have access to all kinds of tasty treats. Not us. We pretty much only have access to artificial sweeteners.

I knew I had completely embraced my condition the day I started buying artificial sweetener in bulk. A big, bulk box of artificial sweetener packets costs something reasonable and lasts for something like two years, plus or minus the scale of my hyperbole. It is stunning how many little packets fit in a shoe-sized bulk box. I use two to three packets per day: one for my morning oatmeal, one for my morning yogurt, and one for a cup of tea I have at some point during the day.

No one else in the house eats the stuff, so it was a mystery when I looked in my pantry one day and noticed a big bag of artificial sweetener.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Artificial sweeteners come in four different format.

The first format is liquid. To my knowledge, the only people who use liquid artificial sweetener are industrial food producers in factories, and people who like to light dollar bills on fire for fun. That's my way of saying that liquid artificial sweetener is very expensive.

The second format for artificial sweeteners is tablet. The sweetener is compressed into a little pill-sized cookie, and a few dozen of them are poured into a plastic bottle. When you want a little sweet treat, you drop a tablet or two into your tea or coffee, and then wait for seventeen hours while the tablet fails to dissolve. Finally, you lose patience and stab the undissolved tablet with a teaspoon until it becomes several shards of undissolved tablet. You drink the unsweetened tea or coffee with a grimace on your face until you reach the last few drops at the bottom, containing all of the undissolved shards. They slip into your mouth with the final drops of tea, forcing you to chew them up, gag, and ultimately hate yourself. It should not surprise you to learn that the tablet form of artificial sweeteners is a favorite among seniors.

The third format for artificial sweeteners is my personal favorite, paper packets full of powder. The packets are pre-measured by weight to ensure that each one contains exactly the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar. Taking a sachet by the topmost seam, you can give it a vigorous little shake, producing a satisfying percussive sound, not unlike maracas. Doing so forces all of the powder to the opposite end of the sachet, at which point you can tear the packet at the top seam and pour the powder wherever you need it to be. The sachet is small enough that it can be precisely aimed; spilling is minimal. The powder dissolves instantly, so instantly, in fact, that if you pour it over a steaming cup of tea it sometimes dissolves in the vapor itself without ever reaching the cup. For this reason, I typically opt to pour the sweetener in alongside the tea bag, prior to pouring in the water. Perhaps the only drawback to artificial sweetener in paper packets is the fact that it is usually mixed with dextrose, which is a sugar. Why industrial manufacturers of artificial sweetener have chosen to mix real sugar in with fake sugar as a bulking agent is beyond me. I wish they wouldn't. Still, there is no superior format for artificial sweeteners than paper packets.

Fourthly and finally, artificial sweetener comes in large, plastic, resealable bags of powder. Near as I can tell, this format was developed for people who like to bake with artificial sweeteners, and who have developed an emotional attachment to scooping raw ingredients out of bags. When folks make cookies, they scoop sugar and flour out of bags. If you find this sort of thing comforting, the food industry has provided a solution for you: artificial sweetener in large, plastic, resealable bags. A second advantage of this format is the absence of dextrose bulking agents. A teaspoon of sweetener is a teaspoon of sweetener. On the detrimental side of the picture, artificial sweeteners weigh much less than sugar granules. Consequently, when you open the large bag, air enters the bag along with your scooping implement. When you then proceed to close the bag, the air escapes, and with it a thick cloud of sweet, white dust, which coats the lungs. To my knowledge, the health impacts of inhaling artificial sweeteners have never been studied. We diabetics are a living experiment.

With that in mind, we can return to my pantry, where, for years, there contained the selfsame bulk box of paper packets from which I drew my artificial sweetener. On this particular day, though, I noticed the addition of a big plastic bag of raw sweetener. My mind effervesced with questions. Where did it come from? Who would buy such a thing? When would I ever use it? Within moments, I had dismissed its very existence. I had my paper packets, which I would continue to use at my leisure. No need to worry about an irrelevant and useless thing.

I should have known at the time that I would one day run out of paper packets and need to purchase a new box. I should also have been more self-aware, for when do I ever buy what I need before it's too late? So it was; the day came when I inevitably ran out of paper packets and was forced to scoop my sweetener out of a bulk bag, inhale the white cloud of dust springing forth as the bag closed, and so forth.

It was a livable situation, but not a lengthy one. I replenished my stock of paper packets soon enough, but in the interim an ecological thought occurred to me. Paper packets come in a cardboard box, so after the sweetener itself is dispensed, all that remains is completely biodegradable packaging. By contrast, the plastic bulk bag involves less overall packaging waste, thanks to the absence of individual, per-portion sachets; but that packaging it does have is not biodegradable. Paper products require lumber, which must be forested. Or should I say deforested? Plastic products are extracted from the ground and refined with ample carbon footprint, deep and wide.

As a consumer, I have no insight into the comparative merits of either form of packaging. The price difference is negligible, and I can be trained not to inhale stevia dust. My point here is that I would like to make the most environmentally sound choice at the margin, but I have no knowledge of which option is the more ecological. I can see benefits and drawbacks to either choice. An informed consumer could make an informed choice, but the finer points of the effects of packaging materials on the environment are complex enough that I doubt any consumer - or, indeed, any lone person on earth - knows the answer to this question with certainty.

With better information, we could all make more informed choices. Not all of us would choose artificial sweeteners based on their environmental impacts, but some of us would, and that would represent a more efficient marketplace. It's hard to say that the asymmetrical information of packaging represents an enormous deadweight loss, but life can, and does, get better over time. If somehow this kind of information could be gathered and delivered to people making simple every-day decisions at the grocery store, then there's no telling what kind of improvements could be made to the environment, or to life in general.

The problem, at least in this case, is our inability to fuse together the relevant facts in a way that informs market decisions. I'm cynical enough to guess that any such attempt would quickly become politicized to the point of uselessness, but wouldn't it be great if humans could find a way, anyhow? 

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