Deceivingly Sweet

by Christine Benedetti, Time Out Food Columnist
One of my guilty pleasures, which I’m embarrassed to admit, is Diet Coke. It’s not something I drink on the regular, but there are moments in life which seemingly call for soda (pop) and that dirty brown version of Coca Cola is my go-to.

I try to make it rare, but one crept up after a long weekend in the California desert after the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. I was tired, thirsty, and longing for a Diet Coke. When I went for one at a restaurant — because fountain sodas taste best — my friend Kate warned me of the dangers in aspartame and diet drinks.

It turns out that she is not the only one with concerns regarding aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in NutraSweet and Equal. In fact, when Googled, “Aspartame: Separating Fact from Fiction” is the first site that pops up, sponsored by aspartame.org. This white, powdery substance has been controversial since it was accidentally discovered in 1965 and approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than 15 years later. In 2007, weighty scientific evidence again deemed it safe, but there are thousands of web pages still hinting at links to cancer, leukemia and other health effects.

People have long had concerns about artificial sweeteners, including a link between the saccharin in Sweet ‘n’ Low and bladder cancer in rats during the ‘70s. More recently, the FDA approved sucralose and stevia. Artificial sweeteners reduce calories in soft drinks and foods by replacing the sugar with a super-sweet chemical alternative.

As we’re learning, it’s not just artificial sweeteners that are worrisome — sugar is, too. Increasingly, research is showing that sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So, swapping a Diet Coke for a Coca-Cola ultimately may not be that much better. We’re not talking just white crystal sugar, but all sugars from cane to high-fructose corn syrup.

Any easy argument is the empty-calorie one: There is little nutritional benefit from ingesting sugar, but there’s a lot of it hidden in drinks and food. For example, there are 240 calories in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca Cola, which is roughly 10 to 15 percent of an adult’s daily intake.

More research is showing that our bodies actually metabolize sugar differently than glucose — fructose by the liver and glucose by all the cells in the body.

Tackling the sugar issue in a single column is like taking on big tobacco. There’s a lot of big business at stake, but the ultimate cost will be our health. Certainly, there’s no room in the argument for me. Food is business, and sugar — and aspartame — is controlled by the most successful giants the agricultural market.

On an individual basis, it’s getting easier to make food choices that involve less sugar and processed food. More plants, less meat and dairy — know what you’re eating.

Next time I’m jonesing for a Diet Coke, water will be my guilty pleasure.

The FDA is currently considering adding aspartame to milk and 17 other dairy products. Public comment is being heard through May 21. Log onto federalregister.gov to voice your opinion.