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As Sweet as Sugar?

The long and short of Aspartame

For The Miami Student

Published: Thursday, September 16, 2010

Updated: Thursday, September 16, 2010 20:09

sweet as sugar feature

HANNAH MILLER | The Miami Student


Bad bone density. Undeveloped bones. Osteoporosis.

These are some of the things that can occur in preteens when they drink too much diet soda and are not consuming enough calcium, according to Dr. Jeff Loughead of Children's Memorial Hospital in Illinois.

"For boys at the ages of 17 to 20 and for girls at the ages of 15 to 17, they are consuming the most calcium ever," Loughead said. "Drinking a lot of pop and not drinking a lot of milk is not going to build strong bones."

Loughead said bone structure and bone density is at its peak for boys and girls that age. After this time period, bone growth and density discontinues. If not, there is a higher risk for weak bones and osteoporosis, especially for women.

Now what do all diet sodas have in common? They all have a substance called aspartame, an artificial sweetener approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has around zero calories and is approximately 200 times sweeter than pure sugar, according to the American Medical Association website. Aspartame started appearing in soda in 1983.

Molly Loughead, a recent dietetics graduate from Ohio University, said consuming large amounts of diet soda everyday for years becomes a toxin in the body. She compared aspartame to being a drug like caffeine.

In 2005, according to the Coca-Cola Company's website, Coca-Cola decided to launch a new product, Diet Coke with Splenda. Splenda is a sugar substitute, the little yellow packet most people see at restaurants. Splenda took the place of aspartame in the new product, but there was just one little problem. People did not like the taste.

"I remember trying it," Jennifer Molloy of Cincinnati said. "It tasted horrible and the flavor was completely altered."

Coca-Cola discontinued Diet Coke with Splenda a year later and introduced Coke Zero in 2007.

"The problem with Splenda is it breaks down when cooked with," Molly Loughead said. "So instead, when you cook with Splenda, it becomes one part sugar, one part Splenda. There has not been a way just to be able to use Splenda in that way."

With the problems aspartame can cause to people's bodies, there was a curiosity about soda drinking habits.

So just how many cans of soda are consumed by people that are of our parents' age, our age and our younger siblings' age?

The answer: enough.

A Case Study

The Molloy family lives in a suburb just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. Jennifer and Kevin both work downtown, while their son Sean attends school everyday. Every morning Kevin Molloy enters his kitchen, fills a glass up with ice and fills it with Diet Mountain Dew.

Between the time he leaves for work and goes to sleep at night, he drinks one to two more cans of soda. Kevin drinks 18 to 21 cans of soda every week. That is 936 to 1092 cans per year.

Kevin said he grew up hardly drinking pop in his home, but more milk, water and iced tea. Every once in a while he would have pop during high school.

"(One man) drank (Diet Mountain Dew) at my office and I made fun of him," Kevin said. "Then he bought me a can one day and I really liked it. From then on I started drinking it in the morning."

Kevin said he tried to stop drinking his sodas and quickly saw he was getting headaches and became tired. Those went away, and then one day he realized something.

"I do not like coffee, and I do not drink it," Kevin said. "Diet sodas became my caffeine substitute and the only vice I have is drinking diet soda."

Jennifer rarely drinks soda. She grew up drinking the same things as Kevin: water, milk and iced tea. Even though Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Coke and orange pop are found in their pantry, she sticks to coffee and other things.

Then there is their 13-year-old son Sean. He says he basically will drink anything.

"I like regular pop better, but our house has diet, so I drink it since it is there," Sean said.

Compared to his dad, Sean will drink a soda every other day. Other than the diet pop in his house, milk and Capri Sun are the next best options according to his taste preferences. Sean also said parental influence was not a factor in why he drinks soda. He said it is all about what he likes and what he wants to drink at that particular moment in time.

My Family

Sandy Ludwin grew up with a family that had Coke and eventually Diet Coke in the household at all times. She said her grandmother always had Coke in her house.

"I remember especially growing up in the south, it was always, ‘Do you want a coke?'" Sandy said. "Unlike where I live now, where it is, ‘Do you want a drink?' That was just how it was back then and maybe even a little today."

She drank Coke products growing up and especially remembers drinking it as a teenager. Now Sandy drinks Coke Zero and Diet Stewarts Root Beer. However, unlike her parents, she only drinks one can a day, sometimes two.

Dave Ludwin drinks on average five cans of either diet or regular Mountain Dew a week. He usually drinks the soda with his lunch at work Monday through Friday and occasionally on the weekend.

He came from a household where soda was a rare occurrence. In college it became more available and he wanted to drink it.

"I drink soda upon taste," Dave said. "If I do not like it, I am not going to drink it. That is why I really only drink regular or Diet Mountain Dew."

Growing up, there was not a restriction on what their kids could drink.

"I was never going to forbid the kids to drink stuff," Sandy said. "But I would not let them drink coffee. If they wanted soda, have a soda. If they wanted water, have a water."

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