17 Jul 2023 Should I give up Diet Coke? With aspartame under suspicion, an addict speaks
While this correspondent’s consumption is not on the level of Donald Trump’s, she’s still concerned about its possible links to cancer. Here’s a great exploration of the history of diet drinks, why more women drink them, and whether it’s prudent to stop.
Here’s a confession. When I hear the crackle of a pull tab as a drinks can is opened, followed by that rush of carbonated fizz, it kickstarts a conditioned response. Almost immediately, I start to think about how much better my current situation would be if I was sipping on a Diet Coke. It’s embarrassing, but over the years I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m basically the Pavlov’s dog of Big Soda.
My Diet Coke consumption has never come close to reaching the level achieved by Donald Trump (who reportedly gets through 12 cans in 24 hours) or the late Karl Lagerfeld (whose daily regime included 10 of them, according to the diet guide he released in 2004). But it’s habitual enough that when a certain news alert pinged onto my phone screen last month, it made me shudder.
The chill-inducing headline in question? The revelation that the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was preparing to label aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, also known as category 2B. Aspartame is, of course, the artificial sweetener used in my beloved DC, along with countless other sugar-free fizzy drinks and low-calorie food options.
The International Sweeteners Association has already taken issue with the report, noting that the IARC is “not a food safety body” and claiming that its review is “not scientifically comprehensive”.
And the potential WHO ruling, it should be noted, doesn’t consider how much of a substance a person can consume safely; that is the job of another WHO group, known as JECFA (the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, in partnership with the UN).
It has always been difficult for consumers to get a handle on aspartame’s risk. The sweetener has been around since 1965, when the American chemist James Schlatter accidentally discovered it while attempting to formulate an anti-ulcer drug. After combining two naturally occurring amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, Schlatter, a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare, stuck his finger into the mixture and licked it.
He might have bypassed basic lab rules (and basic common sense), but he’d stumbled across a new low-calorie sweetener in the process.
Aspartame is “approximately 180 to 200 times sweeter than sucrose”, a naturally occurring sugar, explains Dr Terun Desai, senior lecturer and researcher in exercise physiology and clinical nutrition at the University of Hertfordshire. So, you need “a lot less product to achieve that sweet taste. And obviously, from a manufacturing point of view, if you need less of something, then that’s more efficient.”
But since its discovery, aspartame has been beset by controversy. It received approval from the US FDA in 1974, and initially, Desai says, researchers “started looking at aspartame as a product that might potentially have health-promoting benefits”. Their early work, he explains, was “primarily looking for its benefits on cardio-metabolic health” – exploring its effect on the heart, blood, and blood vessels. But then some scientists argued that the studies into its overall effects “weren’t as rigorous as they could have been, so the FDA removed its approval” in 1980.
The following year, they “reapproved it again, having done more [research]”. Soon after, Coca-Cola launched its silver-canned Diet spin-off. Ever since, there have been question marks hanging over the potential health implications.
A report from the Ramazzini Institute linked cancers in mice and rats to aspartame consumption, and a French study of around 100,000 adults last year suggested that people who consumed large amounts of artificial sweeteners had a slightly higher risk of cancer. Confusingly, though, there is also plenty of research out there stating that there is no link between artificial sweeteners and cancer (and the deleterious impact of sugar itself is also very well documented).
Against this backdrop of ongoing uncertainty, why are diet-drink diehards like myself so keen to keep drinking?
As well as being super-sweet, aspartame’s calorific value is pretty negligible. One can of Diet Coke contains about one calorie, a fact that has been seared into my consciousness in the brand’s wiggly cursive font since adolescence. Did my enthusiasm for the drink precede this knowledge? I’d like to tell myself so, but I’d probably be lying.
Documenting her attempts to kick her Diet Coke habit in The Guardian, the writer Sirin Kale described it as “diet culture in a can”. It’s an assessment I’m inclined to agree with. As a teenager in the mid and late Noughties, I’m not sure I’d have gravitated towards diet drinks quite so zealously if they weren’t whispered about as a sure-fire route to that era’s most aspirational quality – thinness.
Another caveat: earlier this year, the WHO released new guidelines recommending against the use of sweeteners to control weight, as there is no evidence of long-term benefit. But when cultural messaging and urban myth have got under your skin, it’s hard to shake them off.
Before aspartame, there was saccharin (and the less well-known cyclamate). When diet sodas first launched in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the link with thinness was more explicit – and more explicitly tied up in old-fashioned ideas of femininity, seen through a male gaze.
In 1964, Diet Pepsi launched with a tagline that was both convoluted and spectacularly creepy. “The girls that girl-watchers watch drink Diet Pepsi,” the ads claimed – a bottle of this stuff, they suggested, would make you worthy of being leered at in the street by passing men. The early marketing for Tab, Coca-Cola’s debut foray into the diet drinks world, wasn’t any better. “Stay in his mind with a shape he can’t forget!” the product promised, claiming that drinking Tab would turn you into… wait for it… “a mindsticker”……
The Independent: Read the full article here