Monday, January 23, 2012

Dawn of the Diet Soda Drinking Zombies

Apparently, it is a well-known fact that aspartame (the artificial sweetener better known as Nutra-Sweet) eats your brain. Essentially, it makes holes in your gray matter. At least that’s what someone informed me last week as I opened a can of diet coke at lunch. Having just watched the brilliant, tongue-in-flesh-eaten-cheek movie Zombieland  that weekend, my mind naturally wandered to the living dead, their brains mercilessly eroded by diet coke.
But in Zombieland, it’s not diet soda that eats your brain – it’s red meat. In the movie, the U.S. population is decimated after someone eats a mad cow infected burger and becomes a zombie. Well, you know how it goes. He bit someone, then he bit someone, and so on and so on. In two months’ time, the whole country is walking dead, save for a few resourceful survivors. By the way, Bill Murray makes a delightful cameo appearance.   
Being told that my diet coke was going to eat holes in my brain coupled with my fear of future zombiehood, I googled “aspartame eats brain”. I found unsubstantiated scare tactics, alarmist emails, urban legends, and “studies” not published in any credible scientific journal. I then did a scholarly search on aspartame and found that credible studies show that, no, aspartame is unlikely to eat your brain.
Now, don’t get me wrong: artificial sweeteners are not a health food. Could we find out down the road that certain artificial sweeteners are not safe? Possibly. But the scientific data that is out there – and there’s lots of it - supports that they’re safe.
The bottom line is that the FDA does a good job of evaluating artificial sweeteners for safety. I know we are living in an era of great governmental distrust. But after the saccharin debacle of the 1970’s when the potential ban of that sweet stuff resulted in great public outcry and criticisms over faulty interpretations of the rat safety studies, the FDA became more stringent in its oversight of the research. The FDA’s approval of aspartame is based on over 100 toxicological and clinical studies.   
I have absolutely no expectation that I will convince the aspartame safety doubters that aspartame is not dangerous. And that’s just fine. There’s no reason you should use it. All I’m asking is this: the next time you see me with a diet coke, please don’t tell me that it’s going to eat my brain and let me enjoy my lunch in peace. 
Beth Kitchin, PhD, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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