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As Sweet as Sugar?

The long and short of Aspartame

By Michelle Ludwin
On September 16, 2010

  • #Homecoming. Patrick Geyser | 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."

As a child in the Ludwin household, I drank soda because it was there. I especially drink Diet Mountain Dew all of the time. I drink one to two cans of Diet Mountain Dew on a daily basis. Since the soda was always around, I got used to it growing up and never really knew the danger of drinking too much of it.

However, one of the most alarming things found through interviews is no one but my mother looks at the back of a soda can. The back of a soda has all of the ingredients.

Students

Sophomore Tessa Purcell is no stranger to drinking pop. Her drinks of choice are Diet Coke or Sprite. However, she prefers Diet Coke.

"I only drink fountain Diet Coke," Purcell said. "If my mom is out getting stuff, she will bring back two to three 32-ounce fountain sodas because she knows I do not like the cans."

Purcell said Diet Coke was always around in her home growing up, so she got used to drinking it all of the time. She said if the soda was running low, someone in her family would run out and stock up just in case. At school she cuts down … sometimes.

"I started drinking at a younger age, but don't as much now since my friends around me don't," Purcell said.

Purcell also said drinking diet soda helps curve cravings, like when some women crave chocolate.

Miami sophomore Alek Lucke rarely ever drinks soda … anymore.

Lucke grew up in a household where soda was always available if he wanted it. He said his mother lives on Dr. Pepper, and he tackled his own "addiction" with Dr. Pepper and Sprite during his junior year of high school. When he got to college and started drinking soda again, something happened.

"I realized when you stop drinking pop and a while later you start again, you feel sick," Lucke said. "Water just doesn't do that."

Lucke said now the only time he will drink soda is when he has fast food, like Taco Bell or Burger King. If he does drink it without fast food, the soda has to be in a glass with ice or else it does not taste good to him.

"It is more work for me to actually get pop the way I like it if I am not getting it from a fast food place," Lucke said. "Plus, when I got to school it was really easy to get water all of the time, so I did."

Miami sophomore Brooke Warren grew up virtually never seeing pop.

"Growing up and still today my mother was very conscience of our health," Warren said. "So the only time we saw pop is if we asked or if my dad ever brought it home."

Warren said she rarely ever asked for her parents to bring soda home because she was not used to drinking it. Ask her today what she would drink if she had a choice, and it would still be water over soda.

However, that does not mean Warren does not like pop.

"I think Diet Dr. Pepper is completely delicious," Warren said. "I love 24-ounce fountain Diet Coke also because it has less sugar."

The Good and the Bad

Even though people do choose to drink soda, there are some that simply cannot let Aspartame enter a person's system. Phenylkenoturia (PKU) is a genetic amino acid defect where aspartame cannot be metabolized in the body, according to Loughead. Loughead said if too much aspartame is in the body, it could potentially leave long-term damage to the liver.

There is one thing to remember: aspartame is not just in sodas. Aspartame is present in foods such as gum, pudding, some candy and yogurt, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, senior medical correspondent for CNN, on his Expert Q&A blog in response to, "Is Aspartame Safe?"

The answer? Yes.

The FDA deemed aspartame and other artificial sweeteners safe for the general public to consume within certain parameters.

In the "Is Aspartame Safe?" blog, Gupta challenges how much aspartame someone should consume on a daily basis. For every kilogram someone weighs, they can consume around 50 milligrams of aspartame. For a 120-pound woman, that's 15 cans of diet soda.

 


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