The scoop on sweets, part one: the fake stuff.

I’ve been asked lot of questions lately about sugar.

And boy. If there was ever a soapbox that I could climb upon with arms outstretched, megaphone in-hand, ready to offend the masses from the free-speech plot of my own making, it is one labeled “sugar.”

Have I talked to you about it before?

If so, are you still speaking to me?

Because I really do tend to go overboard. Usually, the conversations that get out of hand are the ones about artificial sweeteners. Words and phrases like “poison,” “mental illness,” “cancerous tumors,” and “worse than cigarettes*,” flow freely from my self-righteous lips, and I can pin a victim to a board with a sharp point of unrelenting cross-examination.

Since the Internet is a great way for me to throw my opinion to the masses without actually having to face anyone answer many people’s inquiries in one fell swoop, I decided to write a 2- or 3-part series on sweeteners, and begin with the topic of the Worst of the Worst (artificial ones). While I’m not a scientist, nutritionist, or doctor,** I do believe there is ample evidence to support my admittedly polarized opinion.

Let’s start with an anecdotal fact: I don’t know a single person who thinks that artificial sweeteners are good for you. The problem comes when people don’t think they’re all that bad for you — or, when they think that artificial sweeteners are a healthier option than sugar. A lesser evil, if you will.

And why shouldn’t people believe that? Aspartame has been approved by the FDA, right? It can’t be that bad.

But it really is.

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that the FDA is a front for an underground web of conspiring power-mongers, working 24/7 to ensure the slow demise of the American public. But I am suspicious of a government organization that is supposed to be objective but is rather heavily influenced by lobby — and the story of FDA approval of aspartame is rife with stories of conflicting interest. It took the FDA 8 years to approve it, and at the end of that battle [which included the protest of the National Soft Drink Association***, who wrote to the FDA in 1983 “[the manufacturer] has not characterized the decomposition products of aspartame in soft drinks under temperature conditions to which the beverages are likely to be exposed in the United States. Collectively, the extensive deficiencies in the stability studies conducted by Searle to demonstrate that aspartame and its degradation products are safe in soft drinks… render those studies inadequate and unreliable.”(1)] the sweetener was finally approved in 1981 during a change in leadership at the Administration.

But even if you take political influence out of the process, a problem exists with the science behind aspartame’s approval (and the approval of many other GRAS [generally regarded as safe] substances in the FDA): the science, in the words of Michael Pollan, holds the “widely shared but unexamined assumption… that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts.” (2)

To paint a picture: Let’s say your favorite floor cleaner is Murphy’s oil soap — you think it’s the best product for getting your wood floors clean, and your floor guys says it’s safe for the finish. The FDA’s view of nutrition science, in my opinion, is akin to saying that if I bring a case of Murphy’s soap into your house and drop it on the floor, your floors should be safely clean. It assumes that there are no other elements necessary (i.e., you, and a mop) to help the soap do what it is supposed to do. Instead, not only do your floors not get clean, but you are left with a big box of soap in the middle of your floor. The thing that was supposed to safely clean is now a hindrance.

In the case of aspartame, the parts that end up in your body are two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) and methanol. All three of these metabolites, alone, can be found in some fruits and vegetables. The difference between their existence in nature and in aspartame is that 1) they are usually found in much smaller concentrations per serving, and 2) they are found with other enzymes that render them non-toxic in our bodies. So, if aspartame’s metabolites are the jars of Murphy’s soap, the enzymes provided in fruits and vegetables are a mop and manpower. Quantity also matters: nature doesn’t dump 5 full jars of soap onto your floor at one time — your floor would not be clean, but be a royal mess.

Phenylalanine decomposes into diketopiperazine (DKP) a known carcinogen, when exposed to warm temperatures or prolonged storage (hence the Soft Drink Association’s concerns about storage temperatures). Who believes their soda can has been kept at cooler temperatures, and hasn’t been sitting on a grocery shelf (or warehouse) for months or years? Methanol, or wood alcohol, has been approved by the EPA to be safe at levels under 7.8 milligrams a day — but one liter of an aspartame-sweetened beverage can contain up to 56 miligrams of methanol. The scary thing is, these things aren’t jars of soap on your floor; they are known toxins that effect your brain and other body functions. In the best-case scenario, your appetite is stimulated — one study showed that people who consume artificial sweeteners are more likely to gain weight than those who consumed the same amount of calories in naturally-sweetened foods (3). In the worst-case scenarios, you are playing Russian roulette with your neurological quality of life.

Ultimately, the problem with convincing the public that these sweeteners are dangerous is that the effects are often not dramatic. They occur subtly, over long periods of time. So it’s nearly impossible to directly link a symptom (migraine, memory loss, depression, retinal degeneration, and seizures) with the diet soft drink(s) or sugar-free gum a person consumes each day. But plenty of people made the connection — until they stopped categorizing them in 1992, about 70-80% of the complaints to the FDA about supplements concerned aspartame (4).

There is no easy way to kick the habit — it must simply be a decision to stop consuming artificial sweeteners. If you currently use them in packets to sweeten your coffee or tea, a great healthy alternative is stevia. This is a sweet powder made from an herb, and is used very similarly to artificial sweeteners in that a little bit goes a long way (once hard-to-find, it is now available in the health food section of many grocery stores).  If you’ve got a soda habit, plan for a hard few weeks after you stop cold-turkey. To satisfy a desire for carbonation, drink a cocktail of half unflavored sparkling water, half 100% natural fruit juice (and try to limit yourself to just one or two a day so you’re not replacing an aspartame addiction with a sugar addiction).

And, for the love of friendship — if I know you personally (oh, Indy Tweeps, you have no idea the restraint I’m showing here by not listing handles) please don’t stop speaking to me. I’m just the loud-mouthed messenger, remember? And don’t start hiding your Diet Coke cans if I come to your house — I won’t flush them down the toilet, or even give you a mini-lecture. I’ll just be enjoying the time we have together.

While we still have it.

Tee. Hee.


Read part 2 and part 3 in the sugar series, for more valuable info on sweeteners.

2) Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food, p 28
4) Metzenbaum H. Discussion of S.1557 (Aspartame Safety Act). Congressional Record-Senate August 1, 1985, p.S 10820.

* No, I’m not condoning cigarettes. But I do think artificial sweeteners are worse in the sense that they’re sneakier.

** Seriously, I’m none of these things. If you want a medical opinion, see one of those people — but if they tell you aspartame is safe, keep looking.

*** Ok, the SOFT DRINK PEOPLE didn’t want to use it? Isn’t that a huge red flag?


28 thoughts on “The scoop on sweets, part one: the fake stuff.

  1. You just kicked my puppy while making some good points. Can you go to all the grocery stores in town with a photo of me in hand, and tell them “do not sell Diet Coke to this woman?”

    That would be really helpful, as I am currently out of my drug.

    1. I can have a puppy-kicking tendency. But that cute little dog is growing up to be a vicious man-eater…

  2. Thank you for this post. I did really good for awhile… about 8 weeks, but then, you know…

    The fact that the soft drink people didn’t want to use it is quite alarming!

    When I was avoiding it & told my husband some of the stuff you told me, he said, “We’re all going to die from something at some point.” Oy.

    Anyway, all of this to say that I do appreciate the information (because trying to research it on my own would be way too much). I’ll look forward to your future posts on the subject as well. I’ll even try to not be drinking a Diet Coke while reading them…

  3. I was already agreed on the issue, but this is great information – thanks for pulling it all together! And for standing on the soapbox. I think it’s an important one.

  4. Ok I am going to tell you know that I didn’t read the middle part about how each was bad for you – but I am there with you – common sense tells me fake anything is bad to put in a body. You go girl – preach the evil of Splenda not to mention it taste yucky!

    So how do you feel about salted butter vs unsalted butter with it’s “other natural ingredients”? Just asking. I would rather cook with unsalted, but what are those “other natural ingredients”?

    1. Jane, this is a new one to me. I use unsalted butter — we use mostly Kerry Gold unsalted, but when I’m doing a lot of baking I get Trader Joe’s unsalted.

      I just looked at their ingredients, and they both contain pasteurized cream. The TJ’s sticks also include “annatto seasonally” which I guess adds color when the butter is too pale.

      What brand are you using that adds “other natural ingredients?”

      1. I do use TJ’s some , but mostly Costco unsalted, but it is in MOST unsalted butter on the market. I never noticed it until recently, but someone pointed out to me . Just wondered what your thought was.
        What is “annatto seasonally”? and where do you get Kerry Gold unsalted?

  5. That boom you just heard a few blocks north was my blissful ignorance shattering. Um, wow. Your writing is so clear, I just love it. Most articles and books on these subjects are too convoluted for me but I totally got your floor cleaner analogy. Thank you!

  6. I bought some “unsweetened” applesauce the other day and then after my kids had consumed it I read on the lid the word “Splenda.” I get tired of reading everything. I hate artificial sweetener.

    1. I did the same thing once, when a certain 7yo requested a bottle of vitamin water at Target. She drank almost the whole thing, and then I took a sip, and could taste the aspartame. Lo and behold… it’s not simply sugar-free because it’s water.

  7. Oh Katy, I so enjoyed this…and I love that last line:) An occasional diet soda IS my worst habit, I’ll admit. Im like the respiratory therapist who smokes. I know better.

    I have tried the carbonated water thing. I added organic cherry concentrate. It was good!

  8. Katy–loved your post.

    Hey, I’ve got a GREAT use for Splenda—sprinkle it in those pesky crevices in your kitchen, and you won’t have any ants on the counters. Yep, kills the critters. Works great for those ant hills outside, too.

    After the parents leave and forget their artificial sweeteners, we don’t return them–we use them as a weapons of mass destruction. I haven’t tried the pink nor blue packets, but I know the yellow works like a charm.

  9. I was delighted to see this post, Katy! I already avoid artificial sweeteners, and occassionally mount a soap-box of my own with family and close friends who seem ready. I cringe every time I see my 7-year-old obese niece sip from her mother’s Diet soda. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law doesn’t seem “ready.”

    1. I always have to equate it with something I love; so while I never liked the taste of aspartame (therefore never drank diet sodas) I feel a similar way about my coffee in the morning. If at some point I was told I had to give that up, it would nearly kill me. Seriously, I would probably ponder death.

      I always think it would be easier if I knew there were serious consequences (I’m not there yet, with one cup of caffeine a day). But part of addiction (and I’m addicted to coffee) is not being able to rationalize that decision.

  10. preach on, katy! normally i bite my tongue when family and friends give my kids things i don’t choose to feed them, recognizing that i am extremely picky about what our family eats and that one simply cannot control everything in life, but about a year ago i saw my son sipping on a diet cherry 7-up at a family function, and i just couldn’t take it anymore! seeing his sweet little hands with this big can of dangerous and artificial ick made me forget all my etiquette of being a guest… there may be more than one member of my husband’s family who thinks i’m crazy, or at least self-righteous, but oh well, some things are worth it.

  11. The thing about this issue that really gets me is seeing how powerful are the combined influences of advertising and mob mentality. Besides the evidence you discuss, it’s simply rather logical that imbibing excessive amounts of a chemical like this is probably not good for you. And yet many people I know (and love dearly) drink 2-3 artificially sweetened colas a day; pop artificially sweetened pieces of gum or mints into their mouths 2-3 times a day; put anywhere from 3 to 6 packs of Splenda in each cup of morning coffee; and some even top off their already-sweetened cereals with another 1-3 packs of the white stuff. On top of all of the mass-marketed food items that have it cleverly buried in the laborious list of ingredients. Not to mention venues like the movie theater or fast-food chain, where you can get your poison super-sized.

    And that level of intake seems pretty average. I know a few people – especially middle-aged women – who do quite a bit more than that. But when confronted with the fact that they might be ingesting poison, they equivocate! They all sound like drug addicts! “Wow, you’re right, I should cut back.” “Well, maybe I’ll use 3 packs in my coffee, instead of 4.” “For real? Are you sure? Show me the research.” “Hmm, you really did make me think twice about buying that 12-pack. [But I bought it anyway.]”

    Why is the idea of crisp, refreshing, [completely artificial] Diet Coke so profoundly compelling? And where did we come up with the entirely false idea that artificial sweeteners help control weight gain? Advertising. And mob mentality.

    Rather alarming.

    1. I don’t think I realized how it’s really an addiction, like cigarettes. For a while I naively thought that if people just knew what artificial sweeteners did, they would want to stop. But many just don’t — and you’re right, it’s frequently those women who are our mother’s ages, who’ve been drinking it (to their demise!) for 30 years.

  12. I’m all against the fake stuff too. We only drink water in our house (and milk only at b’fast…or w/ cookies 🙂 Juice and soda are consumed once a week at our Chik fil a visit each week. But you say Stevia is ok? I did not know that….I always lumped it in with the artificial stuff, so glad to know it’s an ok alternative. We do need to consume less candy….we have a candy bucket and I hate to confess that I do use it more often that I’d like. I always love reading your posts. You are amazing and inspiring. We have 10 chickens in our yard (their egg laying days are almost over), and Eric is planning on getting some turkeys and pigs on some land we own (that we can’t sell–so he’s going to raise some animals to eat—oh boy). The chickens need to be killed for our own consumption, but the kids have named 5 of them (the original 5) and think of them as pets, so not sure how we are going to cross that bridge! ha! Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom with us!
    Ash (Winterville, GA) and part of Resurrection (church plant…Don Aldin). Miss your faces…

    1. Ashlie, stevia is good. I was just at the grocery and saw a sweetener called “Truvia,” and couldn’t tell whether it was really made from just the stevia herb — it was vague enough to make me nervous. I’d try to stick with ones that only say “powdered Stevia” — I know you guys have a Trader Joe’s now (yay!) and they sell it.

      I can totally see Eric with pigs and turkeys on land somewhere. He should get a jersey cow, too — all that milk!

      Have fun with that whole pets-as-dinner thing ; ) We miss all our Athens peeps, too.

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