February 20, 2006

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Time To Cut Way Back on the Diet Soda

And the Crystal Light. Not to mention sugar-free iced tea mix and bottled iced tea, sugar-free gelatin and pudding mix, and indeed anything made with aspartame.

No doubt you know that aspartame (aka Nutrasweet or Equal) has been controversial since its introduction in the 1980s. Even among those of us who shun sugar, aspartame has had a less than sterling reputation. Dr. Atkins felt it interfered with fat burning on a cellular level. The Hellers, who wrote The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet, feel that aspartame, along with all sugar-free sweeteners, causes an insulin release just like sugar. And it's been a part of the community wisdom for a long time that roughly half of low carbers have a hard time losing weight if they drink diet soda or Crystal Light.

There have been "netlore" stories going around for years, claiming that aspartame causes all manner of ills, from headaches to visual disturbances to MS - though often without any medical research to back them up. I personally stopped drinking diet soda shortly after aspartame took over the market (after years of a heavy-duty Tab habit) because I discovered that two aspartame-sweetened sodas in a day were enough to make me feel panicky at night.

Still, I insisted - and continue to feel - that artificial sweeteners are safer than sugar, especially for those of us who are profoundly carbohydrate intolerant, and find sugar addictive.

I have gotten many emails from readers taking me to task for using Splenda in recipes, because in lab animals it caused thymus shrinkage and kidney swelling. In response I point out that this is true, but that these effects happened at dosages the equivalent of a 150-pound human being eating over 10,000 teaspoons of Splenda per day.

Most tests on artificial sweeteners have involved similar whopping-huge doses. It's important to remember that the first rule of toxicology is "Dose is everything." I had a particularly Splenda-heavy day on Valentine's day - I made a sweet poppy-seed dressing for our salad, a glaze for our duck breast, and chocolate sauce and sweetened whipped cream to dip strawberries in. That's far more Splenda than I normally consume in a day, yet I doubt I got more than 1/3 cup, or 16 teaspoons. In short, I feel that my level of exposure is low enough that it's not an issue.

But now tests have been done on aspartame that actually involve doses reflecting possible real-world consumption. And the news is not good.

Dr. Morando Soffritti, an Italian reasearcher, spent the past year studying the effects of aspartame on cancer rates in rats. This man is a respected researcher, overseeing 180 scientists and researchers in 30 countries who collaborate on toxin research. And Dr. Soffritti has now stated that aspartame increases the risk of lymphoma and leukemia. Dr. Soffritti feels this is attributable to methanol (wood alcohol) in aspartame, which turns to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, in the body.

Previous studies have found that aspartame doesn't cause cancer. It should be noted that these studies were performed by the GD Searle company, creators of aspartame.

Dr. Soffritti responds that those studies were flawed. The rats used were "sacrificed" - killed and examined for cancers - at the age of 2 years. This is the equivalent of 53 years old in a human being. Cancer takes a long time to develop, and people under 53 years of age are far less likely to have cancer than folks who are older, regardless of their habits.

So Dr. Soffritti let his rats die at the natural "old age" for rats - about 3 years of age. He also used considerably more rats than most of the previous studies. And using this method, he found increases in lymphomas, leukemia, and tumors at multiple organ sites.

Here's the part I find really alarming about Dr. Soffritti's study: The carcinogenic effects of aspartame cropped up at doses that were the equivalent of a 150-pound human being drinking about six to eight cans of diet soda per day. A devoted diet soda drinker might easily consume that much. I know that in my Tab-drinking days I went through a dozen or more cans a day.

To be fair, cancer is complicated, and we don't understand everything involved in causing it. Some people are more susceptible than others, and there may be various interactions involved we haven't identified. But for now, this is the best information we have to go on.

So I am recommending that all you devoted diet soda and Crystal Light drinkers give it up, or at the very least, cut way, way back. This advice extends to all beverages sweetened with aspartame - iced tea mix, bottled, artificially sweetened iced tea, diet Snapple, whatever. I'm sorry, I know it's going to be hard for you, but geez. Cancer.

Beverages are the big worry, because they're how the biggest doses of the stuff are consumed, just like regular soda is the major source of sugar in most Americans' diets. You could start drinking Diet Rite Splenda-sweetened sodas, I suppose. But while I'm completely comfortable with my modest Splenda intake, I find myself suspicious of drinking soda after soda, period.

If you regularly eat aspartame sweetened desserts, I'd recommend you cut back on those, too, or even cut them out. I will no longer be using aspartame-sweetened diet gelatin or pudding mix in recipe development. I'll start working on alternatives to my best desserts that use aspartame-sweetened products. Still, people who eat 6 servings a day of diet gelatin are rare. People who drink 6 cans a day of diet soda are relatively common.

I still believe that Dose Is Everything. I wouldn't panic about the occasional diet soda, it's the daily habit I worry about. I'll still occasionally make one of my dessert recipes that calls for sugar-free pudding or gelatin mix - I mean, have you tried the "Better Than S-X" recipe from 500 More Low-Carb Recipes?

But if you're a diet beverage addict, it's time to wean yourself. Iced tea, hot tea (regular or herbal,) unsweetened sparkling water, coffee, or good old water. If you must sweeten coffee or tea, a little Splenda, Sweet 'n' Low (saccharine was taken off the list of carcinogenic products years ago; apparently it was one of those products where they used unreasonable doses in the tests) or stevia should be okay.

But best of all is to get over the idea that drinking sweet stuff all day is a good idea.

Posted by HoldTheToast at February 20, 2006 09:55 PM