Who Knows What Lurks in the Cans of Soda?

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The other day on a flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., I ordered a ginger ale. The flight attendant asked if I’d like the whole can—the plane had been in line for more than an hour waiting for a slot to take off, so I suppose she was feeling generous—and I accepted. More ginger ale, more happiness.

About halfway through, I noticed that the can proclaimed “25% fewer calories!” What? How does a soda have fewer calories? I turned the can and read the ingredients. And there it was, at the end of the list: sucralose.

Sucralose, if you don’t know your generic names, is the artificial sweetener in Splenda.

I don’t drink much soda, but when I do drink a can full of chemicals that are carefully combined and selected for their ability to seduce the receptors on my sensory nerves, I think I ought to at least get calories out of it.

A cursory Google search suggests that a lot of processed foods that sound normal actually have artificial sweeteners in them. Manufacturers are finding ways to cut down on sugar, which we’re all apparently afraid of now, by adding in compounds that make the food taste sweet. Sucralose is a big one; the other FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, and saccharin.

There’s some research to support my bias against diet soda. A review published last year in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism found evidence that artificially sweetened beverages are associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain.

It might seem counterintuitive that drinking a diet soda could be bad for you. It’s got fewer calories, after all. But the danger, some scientists think, is that you’re tinkering with the connection between mouth, brain, and gut. When your tongue tastes something sweet, it tells your brain that your body is about to get some energy. When that energy doesn’t show up in the gut, that could cause problems. In the long term, according to one hypothesis, it could make it harder for the body to know what to do when it gets real carbohydrates.

To me, diet soda just seems creepy. Life is confusing enough without misleading my brain about what I’m eating. Either I should be honest and consume the sugar or just drink water. Or tea. (Mmm, chemicals extracted directly from the plant.)

Anyway, whatever the biology, I am appalled that I can be ambushed by stealth sweeteners when I think I’m drinking regular old soda.

Yesterday at lunch I was faced with one of those fancy new soda machines, the kind that gives you a choice of sodas mixed with flavored syrups. I realized it was offering the same ginger ale I’d had on the plane the other day—and that there was no hint that it had artificial sweeteners.

Does it stop there? What else has been reformulated to trick my tongue? I already make my own granola and eat a lot of vegetables from the farmers’ market. Please, food manufacturers of America, don’t turn me into one of those people who makes their own soda, too.

Photo: Somchai Rakin, Shutterstock

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Categorized in: Food/Drink, Helen

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14 thoughts on “Who Knows What Lurks in the Cans of Soda?

  1. I was surprised to see that the kids meals at Disneyword included artificially sweetened apple sauce. Crazy. I would have thought they would have been reluctant to do that, especially for kids.

    But I suspect that the ginger ale in the “fancy new soda machine” did not contain artificial sweeteners. I believe they have two tanks, the sugar one and the artificial sweetener one, and the user chooses one or the other.
    Those machines do dispense formulations that don’t necessarily match the cans.

  2. I stopped drinking diet sodas when they switched from saccharine to aspartame and I found myself getting dizzy. I don’t drink regular sodas because I don’t like high-fructose corn syrup. I will sometimes have “specialty” sodas that just use sugar and minimal ingredients. In general, though, I stick to water (tap water – not bottled!).

  3. Debbie – I like the fancy sodas with sugar, too.

    Bitguru – I’m trying and so far failing to find nutrition information or ingredients lists for the fancy machine. Hm.

  4. “I don’t drink much soda, but when I do drink a can full of chemicals that are carefully combined and selected for their ability to seduce the receptors on my sensory nerves, I think I ought to at least get calories out of it.”

    That’s about the funniest line I’ve ever read in a science article. That said, I’m trying to cut out non-sugar sweeteners and wish that these things had better labeling. Right now, I’m reading ingredient lists as closely as vigilant vegans. It’s really no fun.

  5. A smallish minority of people – about 10%, I think – taste artificial sweeteners as metallic & bitter. I am one of them. So now even “real” Coke will be undrinkable. I’m glad I bought my little soda machine and I’ll keep on making my own. And I’ll bet the food industry will start/has already started sneaking artificial sweeteners into all kinds of prepared foods. Yuck.

  6. BTW you don’t have to use the flavor packs that come with the fancy machine. I use simple syrup (water and yes, SUGAR) with whatever flavorings I want – ginger and lemon, basil and lime, rosemary and peach, tamarind syrup etc etc.

  7. I disagree with your conclusion about artificial sweeteners. But then again, I choose a different diet than you do, and there’s little more you need to do on the internet to provoke people than disagree with their diet.

    I read the full article you liked to, that referred to a possible connection between artificial sweeteners and health problems like diabetes. First, the paper you linked to doesn’t contain any research. It is merely a literature survey on the issue. Secondly, as you may be able to see in Figure 1 of the paper, what the authors are describing is a correlation between consumption of artificial sweeteners and health problems like obesity. As I continued to click through the paper, correlation was all I saw presented.

    Here’s a simpler hypothesis: people who begin to gain weight switch to consuming artificial sweeteners in an attempt to consumer lower calories. However, they make up those calories elsewhere in their diet. In fact, here is an open source abstract reflecting that theory:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130922205933.htm

    Whereas the paper you linked to was a literature survey of correlation studies in time, the paper I am referring to conducted actual experiments on neurological signals:

    “The study identified a specific physiological brain signal that is critical for determining choice between sugars and sweeteners. This signal regulates dopamine levels – a chemical necessary for reward signalling in the brain – and only arises when sugar is broken down into a form where it is usable as fuel for cells of the body to function.”

    This is evidence that supports my hypothesis, which is artificial sweeteners actually contain less energy than natural sweeteners, and any record of historical weight gain over time (and therefore the health problems associated with weight gain, such as diabetes) has to do with the fact that that energy is made up elsewhere in the diet (perhaps in real sugar).

    Lastly, some personal comments – I use artificial sweeteners. My selected sweetener for the past few years has been stevia, which is produced from the sugarleaf plant. Stevia is naturally sweet, without calories, and produces a negligible impact on blood glucose levels. It has been shown to assist in the diets of diabetics.

  8. Luckily I don’t drink soda, too sweet for my taste buds. If I am forced to it’s ginger ale. I will have to start reading the labels on that now. Now the FDA has proclaimed “Carmel coloring” as cancer causing agent. Well, that about covers it all.

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