A tale of aspartame and high fructose corn syrup.
While home in New York State for the Christmas holiday political matters were generally not part of familial conversation. But one piece of legislation in New York was discussed. The new "obesity tax" on regular soda. This tax essentially attempts to deter people from drinking regular soda by adding an ¢18 charge per can. After contemplating the reasoning surrounding this law I believe the intention is good but the mark is missed. Mainly because all other food products with added high fructose corn syrup, and diet sodas are excluded from taxation.
I was a fat kid. In junior high I had to wear a special "fat kid" jersey on the basketball team. I know the torment so many kids are going through now because of their weight. Wanting to understand metabolism because of my battle against childhood obesity guided my choice to study biochemistry. I'm writing this because of that fat kid jersey.
The primary reason soft drink consumption is linked to obesity is the disproportionately large volumes in which soda is sold. 12, 24, 32, even 64 oz. containers are not unusual in our fast food nation. A simple solution to the soda problem would be to tax soda per individually packaged unit on an exponential scale for any container over 8 oz.
Super-sizing the soda portion was the way Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola dealt with plummeting soda prices in the 1980's. This depression in the supply/demand curve happened when the technology to turn regular corn syrup into the much sweeter high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) finally emerged from recombinant genetic research in Japan in the late 1970's. The soda companies, along with almost all other processed food companies, were quick on the uptake and in 1980 they swapped the more expensive imported cane sugar, for cheap domestically grown and processed HFCS. To stay profitable they upped the volume sold to the consumer. When I worked at my local cinema as a high school student my manager called this strategy "up-selling." I was told to ask the customers "you sure you don't want to upgrade that medium to a large? It's only ¢50 more."
In short, the American people fell for the old movie theater pop-corn trick. For nearly 30 years our average caloric intake from soft drinks has gone up and up and up. Michael Pollan explains this phenomenon in greater depth from page 100-108 in the Omnivore's Dilemma.
But simply reducing the volume would be far too easy a solution for our high-tech world. Why rain on Pepsi Co./Coca Cola's parade? Why not make money on the other side. Run billions of ads for weight loss programs, machines, lipo-suction, Richard Simmons and that guy with the pony-tail. Why attack the cause when there is so much money to be made in the clean-up?
Speaking of money to be made on the other side of obesity, I'd like to focus on Aspartame, aka NutraSweet. This compound actually promotes sugar uptake from other dietary sources. This means that an individual that only consumes diet soda and no other food or beverage would indeed loose weight, but any other sugary or fatty food consumed by an individual drinking a NutraSweet drink absorbs those other calories more readily.
I would love to see a scientific paper that is not blocked by the soda, or artificial sweetener companies on weight gain in mice fed aspartame vs. cane sugar. The paper I am proposing would include a control group of mice (fed a normal diet with no added sugars), one experimental group fed a normal diet and 1 gram of cane sugar per day and a second experimental group fed a normal diet and 1 gram of aspartame per day. If the hypothesis that aspartame promotes the uptake of glucose is correct the group of mice being fed the NutraSweet should be heavier than either of the other groups.
There is another disturbing twist in the legend of aspartame. One of the main proponents that pushed legislation through the FDA to allow aspartame to be used as a food additive for mass consumption was the chief operating officer of G.D. Searle and Company - Mr. Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. Rumsfeld re-applied for the FDA to approve aspartame within the first few months of Ronald Regan's presidency. He filed the application despite the fact that the FDA had rejected the initial application because of unclear data relating to observed brain cancer in mice fed aspartame. The relative value Mr. Rumsfeld has placed on human life when reckoning business transactions gives me little reason to believe this man would care to look at any negative evidence about something he wanted the American people to buy into, whether it was war or soft drinks.
A recap - Solutions include; changing the tax language to include all products with added high fructose corn syrup, an exponential tax scale for all beverage containers over 8 ounces, and a ban on all artificial sweeteners until long term biological effects can be thoroughly studied.
In the meantime, raise a small glass of cane-sugar-sweetened cola; to the end of the Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Bush error!!!