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FOOD SAFETY

How safe is the use of Saccharin and Aspartame in diet drinks?
Tuesday, 17 November, 2020, 16 : 00 PM [IST]
Radhikka Kapur
With diets like Keto gaining massive popularity, the usage of artificial sweeteners seems to be on the rise. To get the sweetness without the additional calories or spike in blood sugar seems like a solution too easy to ignore, especially for the calorie conscious market or people trying to lose weight. However there has to be more to the story when these sugar free alternatives have been linked to cancer or the very cause that they are supposed to avoid - obesity.
 
Before we get started on the studies and conclusive or inconclusive evidence , let's look at the origins. Saccharin was discovered by Constatin Fahlberg in 1879, when he was working on coal tar derivatives. Despite having an unpleasant metallic aftertaste it grew in popularity during World War I and II due to sugar rationing. This sweetener is made in the lab and cannot be broken down by the human body. Its origins have always been controversial, from being linked to cancer when studies were carried out in rats to other health issues. So much so that it was banned in the US in the 1970's. Ever since then it has been unbanned and is legally back in our beverages and food products.  
 
Aspartame on the other hand came into massive popularity when the issues with saccharin were at its peak. With all the controversies associated with saccharine most of the diet drinks manufacturers moved to aspartame in the 1980's and continue to use it even now. More well known as NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame a patented sweetener is made by cultivating genetically modified e Coli in tanks and collecting their faeces which contain the chemicals needed to make aspartame.  
 
Even if we can turn a blind eye to the origins of the artificial sweeteners, which is difficult with images of e Coli faeces and coal tar, and the unresolved evidence of harmful or safe for human consumption as per the government and corporate lobbying and capitalist nature of multibillion dollar industries, there are not enough studies or known impacts of these chemicals on human health. And this by just looking at factors which are directly associated with them. The important point to remember is both aspartame and saccharin are chemicals, derived in factories, commercially extremely profitable and non-nutritive. As per Dr David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, they have the ability to change the way we taste food. People who regularly use artificial sweeteners may start to find fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. Research suggests that consistent consumption of these sweeteners may also prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake, making us crave more sweets and choosing sweet food over nutritious food. And that is not all, there is research to prove that artificial sweeteners can be as addictive if not more than cocaine. In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.  
 
While there are studies that show use of artificial sweeteners have no negative or conclusively negative impact on human health a lot of benefits are generally observed by reducing processed sugar from the diet. In the Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36 per cent greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67 per cent increased risk for type 2 diabetes. These are pretty much the diseases that these sweeteners were supposed to avoid and seems like they are more the cause in the modern world rather than an aid in preventing them.  
 
All of this brings us to question, what problem are we trying to solve? Is it a human problem where we cannot control how much sugar we are consuming ? Or a problem of a developed world, where food manufacturing has grown leaps and bounds by adding sugar to most of the products on offer, getting us addicted to the processed food offering and artificial sweeteners just seems to be a way of extending that addiction for as long as possible under the pretext of health. Jaggery, raw cane sugar, molasses, honey are all natural forms of sugar, with origins that we all understand and are comfortable with. They have nutrients and centuries of data on the positive impact on human health. Before shunning them in favor of chemicals, we should take a minute to think about what the problem is that we are trying to solve. Very few things in life are free, and when we hear the word Sugar free a little thought and consideration needs to be given before consumption in our or our family's bodies.
 
(The author is co-founder and CEO of Third Culture)
 
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