PepsiCo have recently announced they are dropping aspartame from Diet Pepsi and replacing it with two other sweetners. As a full-time diabetic and vocational tea-drinker, I regularly sweeten my tea with some man-made sugar and this news got me thinking (a dangerous thing)… Are artificial sweetners really that bad for you?
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aspartame, at least in the small quantities in which it appears in drinks, is safe. But for many this is simply not good enough. There have been rumours circulating about this sweetner ever since it was approved – that the studies on it were incomplete or falsified, that there were close links between pharmaceutical companies and FDA executives, that it causes headaches, and that it is carcinogenic.
I’m not really convinced by those conspiracy theories though. After all, it’s been used in food since at least the early 1980s and, as far as I’m aware, quite a lot of people have consumed it since then. If it were really that bad for you, I would have thought there would be a large spike in the number of brain tumours (which it supposedly causes) since then. And not only that, but that there would be a direct correlation between people with brain tumours and consuming a lot of sweetened drinks. As far as I’m aware, neither of those is the case.
I don’t think sweetners are necessarily brilliant though. Recent studies have shown that people who drink a lot of sweetened drinks are at a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. But others have also shown that sweetened drinks may help maintain weight levels. Both of these results might be true, or they might be false. Trying to isolate aspartame as the one factor across a million others that could tell you how harmful it is sounds pretty tricky at the best of times. But when you’re dealing with real-life people, with different lifestyles and social attitudes that can affect their health it sounds nearly impossible!
In short, like pretty much everything, I don’t believe sweetners are wholly “good” or “bad”. They’re just part of the mix. For me, they mean I can enjoy a sweet taste without raising my blood sugar level. As a diabetic, that’s awesome! Do I consume them constantly? No! Just as I wouldn’t drink coffee all the time, or try to live on carrots alone. At some point, government agencies have got to stop being the regulators of what you eat.
The trouble is that by Pepsi withdrawing aspartame from their Diet drink, I’m pretty certain I’m going to have to keep on defending why I still use it to people.
I guess some of those conspiracy theories were right after all: aspartame does cause headaches…