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.
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?