My previous article, “More on Obesity,” described the down side of drinking a substantial amount of soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), namely adipose fat, i.e., fat around the waist. Over a length of time, such consumption also contributes to high blood pressure, and high HDL cholesterol. What’s a person to do?
You can drink less soda, or drink diet soda, which has no HFCS and almost no calories. However, you may wonder about the artificial sweeteners that are used in diet sodas. The main sweetener is aspartame. (It is also in “NutraSweet” and “Equal” packages.) Aspartame is a synthetic product made from two natural amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. During digestion, aspartame is decomposed back these two natural ingredients. Aspartame has been approved for consumption by the U.S. FDA, the U.K. Food Safety Standards Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, the Health Agency of Canada, and others. So you would assume that it is safe. But life is not that simple.
Long-term studies (birth to death) with rats whose water contained varying amounts of aspartame were conducted by the Italian Ramazzini Foundation. Those studies indicated that aspartame, in the experimental conditions used, is a carcinogenic agent that caused three different kinds of cancers. Several scientists have expressed concerns that a jump in the amount of phenylalanine in the blood from drinking 12 to 24 ounces of diet soda could interfere with dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain. These and similar results convinced Dr. Samuel Epstein, Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, to state that aspartame should be banned.
Not all agree with these judgments. Obviously the FDA does not agree. Scientists in the department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland reviewed the experimental literature on aspartame and cancer. They stated, “The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption.” A review of the safety of aspartame by The (European) Scientific Committee for Food concluded that “despite targeted animal studies, no consistent effects of aspartame on neurotransmitters or their precursors have been observed.” After a review of the literature, the French institute, AFSSA, concluded that aspartame is not genotoxic (i.e., carcinogenic) and it is not associated with the appearance of brain tumors. But they are silent about subtle effects that might arise from excessive phenylalanine in the brain.
With all toxic or possibly toxic substances, one must consider the dose. For example, the elements selenium and manganese are required in minute amounts in the diet, yet a large dose is toxic. The relevant facts here are as follows. The acceptable daily intake of aspartame set by scientists at the FDA is 50 mg/kg of body weight per day. For a 175 pound person this daily limit would be 4000 mg (milligrams). A 12 ounce bottle or can of soda contains about 200 mg of aspartame, therefore, a person would have to drink twenty 12 ounce bottles of soda to reach the FDA limit. Nevertheless, be aware that federal agencies have previous set limits that were later greatly lowered.
A few sodas are sweetened with a different artificial sweetener, Sucralose. This is a modified form of plain ole sugar. Three of the chemical groups of sucrose are replaced by chlorine, which makes the molecule essentially indigestible (but still very sweet to the taste buds, 600 times sweeter than sucrose). It passes out of the body unchanged, and is entirely eliminated within five days.
What should a person do with such conflicting statements on the safety of aspartame and sucralose? My recommendation is to stick with natural ingredients. Unfortunately, it is hard to find sodas made with plain ole sucrose as the sweetener; perhaps specialty sodas carried by natural foods stores. But you say, “Sucrose contains calories.” Yes is does. So it would be reasonable to simply consume only moderate amounts of soda made with plain ole sugar.