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Should We Limit Our Aspartame Intake?

diet popThis morning I heard an interesting thing on the radio. A researcher from Purdue (I’m afraid I didn’t catch her name) was talking about aspartame.  I thought it was by now obvious that we should be avoiding it because it’s so terribly bad for us.

But apparently it’s not obvious. The jury is still out on aspartame and its impact on our health.

The most interesting thing this researcher said was that the soft drink companies (the ones that make pop (or soda, depending where you live)) in particular have slithered their way into our psyches. They get us to ask this question: is a diet soft drink better for me than a regular soft drink?

When people decide that aspartame is bad for them, they feel driven back to regular old soft drinks.

But, said this researcher, that’s not really the question we should be asking.  Really we should be asking whether we should drink soda/pop at all.  She pointed out that back in the day these were occasional drinks. No one really lived on Coke and Pepsi, Sprite and 7-Up.  But nowadays, we drink a lot of a lot of things (see Sam’s post on water), including pop.

Some people drink pop at every meal (even breakfast — seriously. I once went out with someone who drank 6-8 cans of Coke a day). And of course the sizes that are on offer these days are ridiculous.  Remember last year when New York City banned super-sized regular pop over 16 ounces? Whatever you think of the paternalistic motives for restricting consumer choice in this way, from a health perspective there’s no denying that enormous servings of pop deliver no nutritional value and therefore loads of empty calories.

But the ban didn’t apply to diet drinks.

The researcher from Purdue says we would do well to go back to soda/pop as an occasional treat. If that were all it was, then it wouldn’t matter so much whether you chose a regular or a diet.  Sugar or chemicals once in a while wouldn’t be so bad.

So even though there’s no conclusive evidence about whether aspartame is bad for you, it’s fairly clear that drinking pop is not such a great health strategy.

Aspartame shows up in all sorts of other things besides pop, such as yogurt, sugar-free gum, other kinds of diet drinks (like diet iced tea and crystal light), sweeteners, and even some cereal.

As a general rule, I am feeling more and more drawn to a diet that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods.  One thing I know for sure is that aspartame isn’t among them.  I also know that if I’m going to go for something sweet, it’s usually going to involve real sugar.

Drinks are more challenging, however. I myself have been known to have the occasional Diet Coke, and this summer on the boat I drank Crystal Light most days. This is after swearing off it some years back.  I’m not sure what the allure is — there is nothing especially wonderful about Crystal Light.

Both the Purdue researcher and Sam’s post about water have got me thinking quite a bit about the way I’ve been drinking and how much of it is out of habit.  If I am committed to good quality where my food is concerned, why do I take such an unreflective attitude about what I drink?

I’m going to pay more attention. Not so much because I’m afraid that aspartame is bad for me (though it may well be), but because now that I reflect on it I don’t even like it that much.

I switched to diet pop because I fell for the soda companies’ question: should I choose diet or regular?  And given my preoccupation with weight loss back when I first entertained the question, the answer seemed obvious: diet.

But clearly there are other choices altogether.

2 thoughts on “Should We Limit Our Aspartame Intake?

  1. With pop, the choice isn’t aspartame or sugar any more, it’s aspartame or high fructose corn syrup. Although, interestingly, last time we were in Australia, they were still making coke with sugar.

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  2. I have no choice on the matter – I am allergic to aspartame and sensitive to the other artificial (aka non-nutritive) sweeteners. The one exception so far has been xylitol. I can also use stevia with no issues, but aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame postassium leave me with symptoms from a sick migraine (aspartame) to a nauseated feeling to slight queasiness. If I have soda, it’s either the sugar sweetened stuff (no HFCS varieties in my house) or fruit-juice sweetened or stevia sweetened. But in general, I drink plain water, water with apple cider vinegar, or sparkling water. With the sparkling water, I get the fizz of soda without all the sugars or artificial sweeteners.

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