Thursday, July 08, 2010

Think twice about that diet soda

Once upon a time...

No, really, a long time ago, decades in fact, my friend warned me away from the "new" sweetener that was all the rage to replace saccharine.

I'm sure she told me all sorts of terrible things about it, but the one that stuck with me and that made me swear to avoid NutraSweet® at all costs, was that they (yeah, "they") hadn't determined how your body excreted the chemical. Or if it excreted the chemical.

It's a product of my childhood that the pulsing, glowing bezoar of fake sugar I promptly imagined inside me bore a surpassing resemblance to Kryptonite. It was enough to scare me off the stuff for good.

A recent article on Huffington Post by Dr. J. Mercola made me really happy I don't ingest the stuff, which is back in the news with a name change, from "NutraSweet" to "AminoSweet," to highlight the manufacturer's claim that "aspartame tastes just like sugar, and that it's made from amino acids — the building blocks of protein that are abundant in our diet."

It's a common sleight of verbal hand, right up there with "all-natural." As they say (the other "they"), snake venom is all-natural, doesn't mean it's good for you. As for being made from amino acids, while they are "indeed completely natural and safe," according to Dr. Mercola, "they were never designed to be ingested as isolated amino acids in massive quantities, which in and of itself will cause complications."

Dr. Mercola states that the FDA has received more complaints, over 10,000 in all, regarding Aspartame than all other food additives combined. Take that statistic with a grain of salt, since he also goes on to say that "by the FDA's own admission, less than 1 percent of those who experience a reaction to a product ever report it."

Er, that is not exactly what the FDA admitted. In a 1993 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, then Commissioner of the FDA, David Kessler, said "fewer than 1 percent of all doctors report injuries and deaths following the administration of prescription drugs" (emphasis mine). Which is really not the same thing. At all. Like, in any way. I managed to find a few citations that the FDA estimates that less than 10% of people report adverse reactions, but I couldn't trace it to the source — so, more salt.

Well, that got me thinking, and digging. This is what I think I know about Aspartame now: "A 1970s study suggested that aspartame caused brain tumors in rats. However, the Food and Drug Administration persuaded an independent review panel to reverse its conclusion that aspartame was unsafe."

There does seem to be consensus that the FDA's approval of NutraSweet in the 70s was a political and financial hairball of liquid lunches and hidden (or not so) agendas. Everywhere I surf, I find Tamlin Carlisle's 1987 article from The Globe and Mail about the FDA's approval, both cited and not. I also found an interesting, albeit a little salty, time-line compiled by an anti-aspartame advocate.

There does not seem to be consensus regarding aspartame's harmful effects — a great summary of both high-profile sides of the argument is on the site New studies from Italy published in 2007 caused the FDA to conduct its own new safety reviews and once again wholly dismiss any and all claims linking the chemical additive to cancer. At the same time, CSPI downgraded aspartame on its food additives list from a “use caution” rating to “everyone should avoid," and issued a brief castigation of the FDA's safety review as "perfectly predictable."

CSPI advises against Stevia (they're not alone on that one) and approves Sucralose. Mind you, CSPI itself is a little salty, given that in one sentence it advises avoiding sodium nitrite, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, Olestra and caffeine. Come again?

No comments: