Mention addictions and you probably think of the college student hooked on caffeine, or maybe your chain-smoking co-worker comes to mind or perhaps it is your workaholic neighbor who never seems to leave the office. But what would you think if I were to tell you the substance that drives my addiction is artificial sweeteners? What would you do if every time you talked to me I was either chewing on a piece of gum or had a diet soda in hand? My over-consumption of artificial sweetener is something that I was already aware of, but through my inquiries I came to the alarming discovery that artificial sweeteners are in more foods than you may think.
To test the extent of my addiction, I decided to attempt for a week my own version of quitting “cold-turkey”. That’s right, for a week I blacklisted the intake of all forms of artificial sweeteners. I started by safely stowing away my sugar-free gum and soda, my most common sources of artificial sweeteners, into the back of my closet to avoid unnecessary temptation. I then informed my friends of my lofty intentions. The ones who knew me best initially thought I was crazy and told me I couldn’t do it. However, after they realized I was actually serious about this idea they stopped the negative comments, but the expression of the doubt they had about my ability to go without my beloved sweeteners was still all too apparent on their faces.
When Monday morning rolled around, my self-proclaimed ban began. At first it felt strange not placing the usual pack of Orbitz in my bag. I know it might come across as pathetic, but ensuring I was fully stocked on gum at all times had become such a part of my daily routine that not having any available for my immediate satisfaction actually did feel odd. Perhaps the hardest challenge I faced was avoiding diet soda. What felt like the countless times each day I had to walk past the red glow of the vending machines tested every inch of will power I had inside of me. I had never really realized or appreciated before that week the extent to which soda machines infiltrate every lobby area and building side. Each time I had to pass up the satisfaction of having the sweet taste of diet soda refresh my parched tongue was like a mini-battle being fought within. However, each time I was able to muster up enough will power and did not cave in.
Chewing gum and diet soda were by far my most common source of artificial sweeteners, but they were by no means the only thing I had to sacrifice that week. To my unpleasant discovery artificial sweeteners are found in some foods that I would not have expected. One such discovery arose on Saturday morning while I was about to slather my pancakes with syrup. Right before I poured on the syrup, as an after thought I checked the label. Sure enough, listed in small black font under the ingredients list was an artificial sweetener. A few days earlier a similar instance occurred with my favorite low-fat ranch dressing. Although difficult, both times I obediently put down the food containing the offending sweetener and instead reached for an alternative. Alternatives also had to be substituted for my usual dessert of low-calorie chocolate pudding and the Crystal Light lemonade I almost bought at a convenience store. This sweetener ban became a pain by not only forcing me to curb my soda and gum cravings, but forcing me to change some of my other eating patterns as well.
Although I was surprised by some of the foods that contained artificial sweetener, it really shouldn’t have been too shocking. Artificial sweeteners have become ingrained into United States culture and are now somewhat of a staple. The most popular artificial sweetener, aspartame, is sold in over 5,000 different products that are consumed every day. In addition to the usual suspects of diet soda, gum and sweetener packages for coffee, some of the less suspect foods include desserts, baking mixes, cereals and fruit spreads. As I have discovered, artificial sweeteners also come in a variety of brands making identifying them on food labels even more tricky.
As I previously mentioned, the most common sweetener is called aspartame, and is often sold under the brand name NutraSweet or packaged under the name Equal. Another sweetener to look out for is Saccharin, which is one of the most intense sweeteners being three hundred times sweeter than sugar. A third type of artificial sweetener to watch is called cyclamate. As if all these different types of sweeteners didn’t create enough confusion, a whole new generation of sweeteners has also been developed. Fortunately, for now these sweeteners are not available on the market because they are still being tested. So, with all these different names and wide variety of products it is actually easier than you may think to become addicted to artificial sweeteners, and you may be consuming more sweetener than you think.
With these new discoveries in light and my own, already exposed, addiction further affirmed, I became quite concerned about the toll these sweeteners were going to have on my health. To calm my nerves I did a little research on the matter. After scouring the internet and frequenting a university library, I have come to the frustrating conclusion that there is no definite answer. Since many types of sweeteners are legal for sale in the United States, the FDA obviously considers them safe. However, there are some whose views oppose that of the FDA. This has resulted in an ongoing debate that began with the discovery of one of the oldest sweeteners, Saccharin, in 1879. In fact, at one point when a study showed that Saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats, its use in the United States was actually banned. This study has since been disproved because the rats were fed unreasonably large amounts of sweetener. Other claims have been made linking artificial sweeteners to cancer and problems related to the over stimulation of nerve endings like headaches, muscle tension and even possible vision loss. It has also been advised that people with certain health issues like diabetes, certain allergies and hypoglycemia should be more cautious. In general though, the actual health effects of artificial sweeteners appear to be hazy.
After learning that the health effects of artificial sweeteners have not been proven as one-hundred percent risk free or health-damaging, when my week without sweeteners came to an end I again began adding sweeteners back into my diet. Currently, I am still trying my best not to completely revert back to my old addictions. After my torturous week, it is clear that cutting out artificial sweeteners all together is an unnecessary hassle and a sacrifice that I am not willing to make. My focus has instead been to stop carrying gum around with me all the time, and to cut back to one diet soda a day. Although my “cold-turkey” days are over, these new aims are still quite challenging. Occasionally, I have my moments of weakness where my cravings sneak up and get the best of me, but after going a week without sweeteners I know I can do it. I am content with my new goal of consuming artificial sweeteners sparingly, because although sweeteners have not been proven completely safe, I want to live my life in sweet moderation.
©2005 Jamy Borbidge