By Dr. Mercola
Earlier this year, Coca-Cola Company rolled out an ad campaign encouraging people to unite in the fight against obesity. The irony of the situation was not lost on most people however, and the ads drew fire from consumers, consumer advocates and obesity experts1,2 alike.
After all, there’s no doubt that soda is one of the primary beverages responsible for skyrocketing obesity rates, and Coke’s campaign was seen as little more than an effort in damage control.
Soda sales are down, and Coca-Cola should be applauding this fact as it is matched by some small improvements with our childhood obesity rates. Instead, they are marketing sodas harder than ever to make up for lost sales.
Coca-Cola believes a calorie is just a calorie, and if you consume more than you burn - that's why you become obese. In other words, their products and marketing to children are not to blame - the problem is that Americans just don't exercise enough.
Now, Coca-Cola Co. has launched another ad campaign—this time to assure consumers that its no- or low-calorie beverages containing the artificial sweetener aspartame are a safe alternative. As reported in the featured article by AdWeek3:
“It's Coca-Cola's first ad explicitly defending its use of artificial sweeteners in an ad, but the print execution is an extension of the company's campaign, launched this January, to combat detractors who blame it for contributing to obesity, by pointing to the host of diet and other beverages it sells beyond traditional, sugary cola.”
According to the ad, aspartame is a “safe, high-quality alternative to sugar." Clearly they’ve not reviewed the hundreds of studies on this artificial sweetener demonstrating its harmful effects... Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson issued the following statement in response to Coca-Cola’s new ad4:
We certainly want Coca-Cola to shift its product mix toward lower- and no-calorie drinks, but aspartame’s reputation isn’t worth rehabilitating with this propaganda campaign. The company would be better off phasing out its use of aspartame and accelerating its research into safer, natural sweeteners such as those extracted from the stevia plant.”
Sweet Beverages Linked to Skyrocketing Childhood Obesity Rates
As recently reported in the Guardian Express6, kids are 40 percent heavier today compared to just 25 years ago, and a growing number of studies have linked rising childhood obesity rates to increased consumption of sugary beverages—including those sweetened with no- or low-cal sweeteners:
“Aspartame has arguably been found to have the effects of increasing the appetite, fat storage stimulation, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.
In addition to aspartame, one cup of your child’s favorite sugary drink contains nearly 11 teaspoons of sugar, at 128 calories per serving. If you equate that to a child having, on average, one cup of any soft drink containing these ingredients with each meal that is an additional 384 calories or more each day just in beverages,” the Guardian Express writes.
As a general rule, the beverage industry has denied or strongly downplayed its role in the childhood obesity epidemic, despite the fact that beverage companies spend over $1 billion annually on youth-targeted marketing—especially in school settings. According to the Guardian Express, 80 percent of American schools have contracts with Coke or Pepsi to stock their products in school vending machines.
It’s an untenable position, really. Clearly, marketing WORKS, or else they wouldn’t be doing it, and when ads target an audience of 2- to 17-year olds, it’s hardly an accident that kids in that age range opt for soda whenever they’re given a chance!
Americans currently get a majority of their daily calories from sugar, primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in soda and other sweetened beverages.
Half of the US population over the age of two consumes sugary drinks on a daily basis7, and this figure does not even include 100% fruit juices, flavored milk or sweetened teas, all of which are sugary too, which means the figure is actually even higher.
Yet this is only one side of the equation. On the other, you have artificially sweetened beverages (and other “diet” foods), which, contrary to popular belief, carry just as much responsibility for the stubborn rise in obesity. Your body simply isn’t fooled by the lack of calories in these sweetened products, and studies have repeatedly confirmed that artificial sweeteners appear to cause even greater weight gain than calorie-laden sweeteners.
Falling for Flawed Calorie-Counting Advice Is a Costly Mistake
Coca-Cola’s multi-million dollar “anti-obesity” campaign focuses on the outdated idea that all calories are equal, regardless of where they come from, and that consuming more calories than you burn off results in weight gain8. It’s well worth noting that this “conventional wisdom” has been firmly debunked by science. It is in fact FAR more important to look at the source of the calories than counting them. Even Weight Watchers, the world’s largest diet company, finally recognized this two years ago.
The truth is, you do not get fat because you eat too many calories and don't exercise enough. You get fat because you eat the wrong kind of calories. At the end of the day, your consumption of carbohydrates, whether in the form of grains and sugars (especially fructose), will determine whether or not you're able to manage your weight and maintain optimal health.
This is because these types of carbs (fructose and grains) affect the hormone insulin, which is a very potent fat regulator. Meanwhile, fats and proteins affect insulin to a far lesser degree.
Unfortunately, calorie-counting is still a popular misconception, around which an entire industry of “diet” foods and beverages utilizing artificial no- or low-calorie sweeteners has been built. Alas, research has repeatedly shown that artificially sweetened “diet” drinks and foods actually tend to:
- Stimulate your appetite
- Increase cravings for carbs, and
- Stimulate fat storage and weight gain
Artificial Sweeteners Actually INCREASE Weight Gain
It is my belief that the FTC should sue Coke and the other diet soda manufacturers, for fraudulent advertising as there are no studies showing that the use of diet sodas cause one to lose weight. In fact, they actually have been shown to cause weight gain. A 2012 study published in the journal Appetite9 showed that saccharin and aspartame both cause greater weight gain than sugar. In this study, rats were fed plain yogurt sweetened with either aspartame, saccharin, or sugar, plus their regular rat chow, for 12 weeks. According to the researchers10:
“Results showed that addition of either saccharin or aspartame to yogurt resulted in increased weight gain compared to addition of sucrose, however total caloric intake was similar among groups.”
The reason for the similar calorie consumption between the groups was due to increased chow consumption by the rats given artificially sweetened yogurt. This type of compensation has been found in previous studies11 as well, indicating that when your body gets a hit of sweet taste without the calories to go with it, it adversely affects your appetite control mechanisms, causing increased food cravings. This connection between sweet taste alone and increased hunger can be found in the medical literature going back at least two decades. These two studies, for example, dating back to the late 80s and early 90s, both showed this link between artificial sweeteners and increased hunger:
- Physiology & Behavior, 198812 – In this study, they determined that intense (no- or low-calorie) sweeteners can produce significant changes in appetite. Of the three sweeteners tested, aspartame produced the most pronounced effects.
- Physiology & Behavior 199013 – Here, they again evaluated whether or not the mere taste of “sweet” increases hunger, by having human subjects chew gum for 15 minutes containing various levels of aspartame (0.05%, 0.3%, 0.5%, or 1.0%).
Interestingly, although those who chewed artificially sweetened gum reported increased hunger compared to the control group who were given nothing or unsweetened gum base to chew, the increase did not directly correlate with the aspartame concentration in the gum. Women experienced the greatest increase in hunger after chewing gum containing 0.3 percent aspartame (the second lowest concentration amount), while men were the hungriest after chewing on gum containing 0.5 percent aspartame. The authors stated:
“The highest aspartame concentrations had a time-dependent, biphasic effect on appetite, producing a transient decrease followed by a sustained increase in hunger ratings. Thus, the concentration of the sweetener, the sex of the subject, and the time after chewing, were all important determinants of whether 'sweetness' increased hunger".
Diet Soda Linked to Same Health Problems as Regular Soda
Artificial sweeteners also appear to cause many other health effects typically associated with high sugar consumption. Most recently, a report published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism14 highlighted the fact that diet soda drinkers suffer the same exact health problems as those who opt for regular soda, such as excessive weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke15,16. The authors—who were “shocked” at the results—looked at studies published in the past five years that examine the relationship between diet soda consumption and health outcomes:
“This paper discusses these findings and considers the hypothesis that consuming sweet-tasting but noncaloric or reduced-calorie food and beverages interferes with learned responses that normally contribute to glucose and energy homeostasis. Because of this interference, frequent consumption of high-intensity sweeteners may have the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements,” they write.
Recent research has also demonstrated that aspartame worsens insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar, which is quite the blow for diabetics who obediently follow the recommendation to switch to diet sodas to manage their condition. The researchers used a dosage of aspartame that approximates the ADI for aspartame in the US (approx. 50 mg/kg body weight), and not only was aspartame found to decrease insulin sensitivity compared to controls, it also wrought havoc on brain function.
The Biological Explanation Behind Aspartame’s Harmful Side Effects
According to the “aspartame safety” page17 issued by the Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness, “when aspartame is digested, your body breaks it down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol.” Methanol is one of the root problems with aspartame. However, Coca-Cola (and many other food and beverage manufacturers) often misleadingly counter the claims of methanol being a harmful aspect of aspartame by pointing out that it also occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables.
For instance, Coca-Cola writes:
“Compared to amounts obtained from an aspartame-sweetened beverage, these components are consumed in much greater amounts from a variety of foods, including milk, meat, dried beans, fruits and vegetables... a serving of tomato juice provides about six times more methanol, compared to an equivalent serving of a beverage sweetened with aspartame.”
So why would methanol cause a problem in aspartame if it’s harmless in fruits and vegetables? There are two main points that need to be understood here:
- Aspartame is primarily made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The phenylalanine has been synthetically modified to carry a methyl group, which provides the majority of the sweetness. That phenylalanine methyl bond, called a methyl ester, is very weak, which allows the methyl group on the phenylalanine to easily break off and form methanol. This is in sharp contrast to naturally-occurring methanol found in certain fruits and vegetables, where it is firmly bonded to pectin, allowing the methanol to be safely passed through your digestive tract.
- Your body metabolizes methyl alcohol differently than every other animal. All animals, with the exception of humans, have a protective mechanism that allows methanol to be broken down into harmless formic acid. This is why toxicology testing on animals is a flawed model. It doesn't fully apply to humans.
Here’s how this works: Both animals and humans have small structures called peroxisomes in each cell. There are a couple of hundred in every cell of your body, which are designed to detoxify a variety of chemicals. Peroxisome contains catalase, which help detoxify methanol. Other chemicals in the peroxisome convert the formaldehyde to formic acid, which is harmless, but this last step occurs only in animals. When methanol enters the peroxisome of every animal except humans, it gets into that mechanism. Humans do have the same number of peroxisomes in comparable cells as animals, but human peroxisomes cannot convert the toxic formaldehyde into harmless formic acid.
So, in humans, methanol ends up acting as a Trojan horse. It’s carried into susceptible tissues in your body, like your brain and bone marrow, where an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) converts it into formaldehyde. And since there's no catalase present, the formaldehyde is free to cause enormous damage in your tissues.
Are Your Health Problems Related to Aspartame?
Symptoms from methanol poisoning include headaches, ear buzzing, dizziness, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, weakness, vertigo, chills, memory lapses, numbness and shooting pains in the extremities, behavioral disturbances, and neuritis. The most well known problems from methanol poisoning are vision problems including misty vision, progressive contraction of visual fields, blurring of vision, obscuration of vision, retinal damage, and blindness. Meanwhile, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes retinal damage, interferes with DNA replication and may cause birth defects.
Symptoms of methanol poisoning are very similar to the side effects of aspartame. Unfortunately, aspartame toxicity is not well known by physicians, despite its frequency. Diagnosis is also hampered by the fact that it mimics several other common health conditions. It’s quite possible that you could be having a reaction to artificial sweeteners and not even know it, or be blaming it on another cause. To determine if you're having a reaction to artificial sweeteners, take the following steps:
- Eliminate all artificial sweeteners from your diet for two weeks.
- After two weeks of being artificial sweetener-free, reintroduce your artificial sweetener of choice in a significant quantity (about three servings daily).
- Avoid other artificial sweeteners during this period.
- Do this for one to three days and notice how you feel, especially as compared to when you were consuming no artificial sweeteners.
- If you don't notice a difference in how you feel after re-introducing your primary artificial sweetener for a few days, it's a safe bet you're able to tolerate it acutely, meaning your body doesn't have an immediate, adverse response. However, this doesn't mean your health won't be damaged in the long run.
- If you've been consuming more than one type of artificial sweetener, you can repeat steps 2 through 4 with the next one on your list.
If you do experience side effects from aspartame, please report it to the FDA (if you live in the United States) without delay. It's easy to make a report — just go to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator page, find the phone number for your state, and make a call reporting your reaction.
Improve Your Health by Ditching Sweetened Drinks
Perhaps one of the most powerful scientific discoveries to emerge in the past several years is that the old adage “a calorie is a calorie” is patently false. The research clearly demonstrates that even if you control the number of calories you eat, if those calories come from fructose, you are at increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, or prediabetes, which includes insulin resistance, fatty liver, high blood pressure and high triglycerides.
So please, do yourself and your family a huge favor, and don’t allow yourself to get swept up in Coca-Cola’s multi-million dollar ad campaigns, which are based on flawed, inaccurate, misleading, and patently false conventions of thinking about obesity and the role of aspartame. Let’s not forget: Coca-Cola spent $1.2 million to defeat California Proposition 37 last November, which would have required genetically engineered (GE) foods to be labeled as such (which could have included soda containing GE high fructose corn syrup). That, in and of itself, is proof positive that Coca-Cola has no concern for health conscious consumers.
Sweetened beverages, whether it’s sweetened with sugar, HFCS, naturally-occurring fructose, or artificial sweeteners like aspartame, are among the worst culprits in the fight against obesity and related health problems, including diabetes, heart and liver disease, just to name a few. Ditching ALL of these types of beverages can go a long way toward reducing your risk for chronic health problems and weight gain. So what should you drink?
Your best most cost effective choice is to drink filtered tap water. The caveat though is to make sure you filter your tap water. I've written a large number of articles on the hazards of tap water, from fluoride to dangerous chemicals and drugs, to toxic disinfection byproducts and heavy metals, so having a good filtration system in place is more of a necessity than a luxury in most areas.
Remember, nothing beats pure water when it comes to serving your body’s needs. If you really feel the urge for a carbonated beverage, try sparkling mineral water with a squirt of lime or lemon juice.Another option to consider is to bottle your own water from a gravity-fed spring. There's a great website called FindaSpring.com where you can find natural springs in your area. This is a great way to get back to nature and teach your children about health and the sources of clean water. The best part is that most of these spring water sources are free! Just remember to bring either clear polyethylene or glass containers to collect the water so no unsafe chemicals can contaminate your water on the way home. If you choose to use glass bottles, be sure to wrap them in towels to keep them from breaking in the car.
Tell Coke They're a Joke!
Obesity is a serious public health problem in the United States, and you are being sorely misled by companies pretending to have a solution that, in reality, only worsen the problem. I strongly urge you to let the Coca-Cola Company know how you feel by telling them to stop their deceptive marketing of soda products.
Join me in taking a stand against false advertising and let your voice be heard. If you’re on twitter, send a tweet to #CokeCEO to let the Coca-Cola Company know you are not happy with their deceptive advertising. If you’re on Facebook, please share your thoughts with them on their Facebook Page. Please also email the Coca-Cola Company to let them know how you feel!