Coca Cola's latest product launches


Culled from Marion Nestle's blog, two consecutive posts relating to Coca Cola's latest product launches:
- Coca-Cola’s new health drink?
- Another Coca-Cola Product: Simply Orange

The first launch goes with the current "functional beverages" trend we have described early last month in Debunking Superfoods Beverages.

The second launch is way more interesting: It is a much bolder, "innovative" move coming from such a food giant as Coca Cola; it means going backwards food-technology-wise, and marketing a more "traditional", minimally processed drink.
We also mentioned last month's Mintel 2008 Food Trend report in our Junk-free foods trend post...
Looks like Coca Cola jumped on the trend. Well, as Marion Nestle points out, Coca Cola's and Minute Maid's brand names are conspicuously absent from the labels, ads and websites: Isn't Minute Maid associated with juices processed from concentrates? And Coca Cola with sodas and related sweetened beverages?

Food and Non-Food


In this climate of so-called "functional foods" -which supposedly offer "added health benefits" thanks to the processed foods industry's ingenuity-, it is refreshing that someone raises his voice, and points out to the core of the problem:

Why since the eighties have we become more overweight, more allergic, more sick?

Michael Pollan gives us an answer, with his upcoming book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, due this January 1st. Here is an introduction to it. The idea that Pollan develops throughout this book, is that: There has been food (and beverages) -read: Real food/ whole foods-, and ever increasingly since the age of Nutritionism (80s), foodlike substances -read: processed foods, functional foods in packages, techno-foods, franken-foods and beverages, whatever food technologists have invented-.

In fact, these newer "fake foods" have come to make up more than half of our daily calories. Chronic diseases have reached the epidemic level. Schools list more and more kids with severe allergies, etc. Is this mere coincidence?
We don't think so: It literally took decades for the truth about transfats to be told to the public. These man-made fats were first marketed as healthier than the real thing -read butter, lard, chicken fat, etc.-, and although a bunch of skeptical scientists have been showing since the 70s that transfats were actually causing cancer, it took FDA over 30 years to ask manufacturers to list transfats on labels.
How about all these new foodlike substances with outrageous health claims? Look at the full spectrum from refined flours, nonfat milk -always processed to powder, then reconstituted, which means oxidized milk-, dried eggs -read: oxidized eggs-, all the way to the latest fabricated foodlike ingredients we mentioned in our previous post.
All for the juicy "functional foods" business. All at our health's expense.

Science comes up with more functional ingredients for the industry


From, these 2 articles list an alarming array of new techno-ingredients' launches of carbohydrates, fibres, cultures, enzymes, and fats and oils. All for the exploding market of so-called functional foods. Part one and part two.

Where is the food?

Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn


From the New York Times, this follow-up story to our earlier post on Europe's ban on Genetically Modified corn. Highlights are ours.

BRUSSELS — A proposal that Europe’s top environment official made last month, to ban the planting of a genetically modified corn strain, sets up a bitter war within the European Union, where politicians have done their best to dance around the issue.

The environmental commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said he had based his decision squarely on scientific studies suggesting that long-term uncertainties and risks remain in planting the so-called Bt corn. But when the full European Commission takes up the matter in the next couple of months, commissioners will have to decide what mix of science, politics and trade to apply. And they will face the ambiguous limits of science when it is applied to public policy.

For a decade, the European Union has maintained itself as the last big swath of land that is mostly free of genetically modified organisms, largely by sidestepping tough questions. It kept a moratorium on the planting of crops made from genetically altered seeds while making promises of further scientific studies.

But Europe has been under increasing pressure from the World Trade Organization and the United States, which contend that there is plenty of research to show such products do not harm the environment. Therefore, they insist, normal trade rules must apply.

Science does not provide a definitive answer to the question of safety, experts say, just as science could not determine beyond a doubt how computer clocks would fare at the turn of the millennium.

Science is being utterly abused by all sides for nonscientific purposes,” said Benedikt Haerlin, head of Save Our Seeds, an environmental group in Berlin and a former member of the European Parliament. “The illusion that science will answer this overburdens it completely.” He added, “It would be helpful if all sides could be frank about their social, political and economic agendas.”

Mr. Dimas, a lawyer and the minister from Greece, looked at the advice provided by the European Union’s scientific advisory body — which found that the corn was “unlikely” to pose a risk — but he decided there were nevertheless too many doubts to permit the modified corn.

“Commissioner Dimas has the utmost faith in science,” said Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the environment department. “But there are times when diverging scientific views are on the table.” She added that Mr. Dimas was acting as a “risk manager.”

Within the European scientific community, there are passionate divisions about how to apply the growing body of research concerning genetically modified crops, and in particular Bt corn. That strain is based on the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and mimics its production of a toxin to kill pests. The vast majority of research into such crops is conducted by, or financed by, the companies that make seeds for genetically modified organisms.

“Where everything gets polarized is the interpretation of results and how they might translate into different scenarios for the future,” said Angelika Hilbeck, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, whose skeptical scientific work on Bt corn was cited by Mr. Dimas. “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?” she asked.

Ms. Hilbeck says that company-financed studies do not devote adequate attention to broad ripple effects that modified plants might cause, like changes to bird species or the effect of all farmers planting a single biotechnology crop. She said producers of modified organisms, like Syngenta and Monsanto, have rejected repeated requests to release seeds to researchers like herself to conduct independent studies on their effect on the environment.

In his decision, Mr. Dimas cited a dozen scientific papers in finding potential hazards in the Bt corn to butterflies and other insects.

But the European Federation of Biotechnology, an industry group, contends that the great majority of these papers show that Bt corn does not pose any environmental risk.

Many plant researchers say that Mr. Dimas ignored scientific conclusions, including those of several researchers who advised the European Union that the new corn was safe.

“We are seeing ‘advice-resistant’ politicians pursuing their own agendas,” said one researcher, who like others asked not to be identified because of his advisory role.

But Karen S. Oberhauser, a leading specialist on monarch butterflies at the University of Minnesota, said that debate and further study of Bt corn was appropriate, particularly for Europe.

“We don’t really know for sure if it’s having an effect” on ecosystems in the United States, she said, and it is hard to predict future problems. About 40 percent of corn in the United States is now the Bt variety, and it has been planted for about a decade.

“Whether Bt corn is a problem depends totally on the ecosystem — what plants are near the corn field and what insects feed on them,” Ms. Oberhauser said. “So it’s really, really important to have careful studies.”

Bt crops produce a toxin that kills pests but is also toxic to related insects, notably monarch butterflies and a number of water insects. The butterflies do not feed on corn itself, but they might feed nearby, on plants like milkweed. Because corn pollen is carried in the wind, such plants can become coated with Bt pollen.

Ms. Oberhauser said she had been worried about the effect of Bt corn on monarch butterflies in the United States after her studies showed that populations of the insect dipped from 2002 to 2004. But they have rebounded in the last three years, and she has concluded that, in the American Corn Belt, Bt corn has probably not hurt monarch butterflies.

Still, she said there was disagreement about that as well as broader causes for worry. Monarch butterflies may have been saved in the United States, she said, by a fluke of local farming practices. Year by year, farmers alternate Bt corn with a genetically modified soy seed that requires the use of a weed killer. That weed killer, Monsanto’s Roundup, eliminated milkweed — the monarch’s favored meal — in and around corn fields, so the butterflies went elsewhere and were no longer exposed to Bt.

“It’s a problem for milkweed, but it made the risk for monarchs very small,” she said.

Still, she said, other effects could emerge with time and in farming regions with other practices. For example, Bt toxin slows the maturation of butterfly caterpillars, which leaves them exposed to predators for longer periods.

“Sure, time will give you answers on these questions — and maybe show you mistakes that you should have thought about earlier,” she said.

For ecologists and entomologists, a major concern is that insects could quickly become resistant to the toxin built into the corn if all farmers in a region used that corn, just as microbes affecting humans become resistant to antibiotics that are prescribed often. The pests that are killed by modified corn are only a sporadic problem and could be treated by other means.

Scientists also worry about collateral damage because Bt toxin is in wind-borne pollen. Most pollens “are highly nutritious, as they are designed to attract,” Ms. Hilbeck said, wondering how a toxic pollen would affect bees, for example.

Having reviewed the science, insurance companies have been unwilling to insure Bt planting because the risks to people and the environment are too uncertain
, said Duncan Currie, an international lawyer in Christchurch, New Zealand, who studies the subject.

In the United States, where almost all crops are now genetically modified, the debate is largely closed.

“I’m not saying there are no more questions to pursue, but whether it’s good or bad to plant Bt corn — I think we’re beyond that,” said Richard L. Hellmich, a plant scientist with the Agriculture Department who is based at Iowa State University. He noted that hundreds of studies had been done and that Bt corn could help “feed the world.”

But the scientific equation may look different in Europe, with its increasing green consciousness and strong agricultural traditions.

“Science doesn’t say on its own what to do,” said Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority. She noted that while her agency had advised Mr. Dimas that Bt corn was “unlikely” to cause harm, it was still working to improve its assessment of the long-term risk to the environment.

Part of the reason that science is central to the current debate is that European law and World Trade Organization rules make it much easier for a country or a region to exclude genetically modified seeds if new scientific evidence indicates a risk. Lacking that kind of justification, a move to bar the plants would be regarded as an unfair barrier to trade, leaving the European Union open to penalties.

But the science probably will not be clear-cut enough to let the European ministers avoid that risk.

Simon Butler at the University of Reading in Britain is using computer models to predict the long-term effect of altered crops on birds and other species. But should the ministers reject Bt and other genetically modified corn?

“My work is not to judge whether G.M. is right or wrong,” he said. “It’s just to get the data out there.”

So, from our understanding, BT corn has to be proven harmful in order to be banned in Europe. Which means, long-term, independant scientific studies. Which means access to the seeds for independant researchers.
Now the question is: How come BT corn did not have to be proven safe in the first place? We now know that most corn crops in the US are genetically modified. This phenomenon is relatively recent, so, in effect, North America is the guinea pig to the rest of the world. To Monsanto's mid-term profit.

Book Review: Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating


Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating explores the relationship between food intake, psychology/behavior and marketing. This book addresses the psychology of overeating in our culture: How our emotions, and most importantly our environment tend to control what and how much we eat. This is not a diet book, but Wansink offers several ideas for changing your mindset to encourage eating less.

A few facts: we tend to want to eat the same amount of volume of food to feel full. If air or water is added to make the food appear larger, we will eat the same amount and feel just as full. Three year olds will eat until they are sated. Five year olds will eat the amount of food put upon their plate because they assume that it is the appropriate amount. If we are eating with 2 people, we will eat 50% more food than if we were eating alone and 96% more food with 7 or more people. We eat more M&Ms in a bowl with 10 colors than with 7 colors. We eat something just because it's there, even if it doesn't even taste good.
These are just a few examples culled from his behavioral studies.

Wansink says if we add or subtract 100 calories a day to our diet, our body won't really notice, but it will mean the difference between gaining or losing a half pound a week.

Because Wansink has established that culturally, overeating is encouraged by:
-The destructuration of meals (snacking, eating-on-the-go, eating at the desk, TV room dining…)
-The power of food and beverage marketing
-External cues, such as:
o Plates, containers, shopping carts, cupboard sizes
o Packages and food descriptions
o Immediate surroundings (people, lighting, music, etc.)
o Distance to food available, and the downside of convenience,

he offers manageable strategies to work with our American lifestyle, uncover the hidden persuaders that lead to overeating, and eliminate them painlessly: Use smaller plates; eat slowly; don't bring the food container to the table; pay attention to what you're eating and don't read, watch TV, drive or do anything else at the same time; if you buy in bulk, divide the package into smaller mini- packages; keep sinful foods out of sight (like, no candy jar on your desk); stop when you're full and don't feel compelled to finish everything, etc.
In the paperback postscript, he targets personalized strategies to 5 types of overeaters: The Meals Stuffers, the Snack Grazers, the Party Bingers, the Restaurant Indulgers, and the Desktop Diners.

We do have some reservations:
-Calorie and portion size reduction isn't necessarily the answer to rising obesity rates. It does help to cut back on our subliminal eating, but does not look into diet/calories quality. Switching to a healthier lifestyle does require more than painless tricks to control portions. It means weaning from processed convenience foods, among other things. A good, practical, family-oriented book we recommend to step up to better eating is Dr. Ludwig’s Ending The Food Fight.

-In the paperback postscript, Wansink touches the subject of school lunches. While there are definitively some groundbreaking ideas explored about reengineering lunchrooms to help our children make healthier choices, we were shocked to read that school lunches should be put in perspective, as they make only 5 out of 21 weekly meals. We are sorry, Mr. Wansink, but we think that the sound perspective on school lunches is to acknowledge that they happen … at school. School is as important an education place as home. If not more, considering the power of peer pressure in our culture. Besides, food eaten throughout the day by our children goes beyond the lunch room. Think vending machines, open campuses policies, etc…And Junk Food providers sneaking their reward systems within the very classrooms. 5 meals out 21 are just misleading statistics, and in no way account for the larger picture, and all the stakes involved. The entire school food system does need a complete makeover, in order to help educate our children to proper nutrition, instead of sending mixed, confusing messages. Hopefully, Mr. Brian Wansink will get deeper into this problem in his new position as executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

-Our last reservation concerns Wansink’s follow-up book Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology and Obesity. While the idea that reversing the damages done by junk food marketing by promoting healthy foods marketing has universal appeal, We disagree with Wansink’s definition for healthy foods: Slapping some fractioned, genetically modified soy into more processed foods does not make them healthy: It just enables the food industry to make health claims for what is really healthy-sounding junk food. The same goes for any processed, so-called functional foods. We do hope FDA will be given the means to protect us, consumers, from all these misleading, abusive industry claims.

Alcohol, Energy Drinks and Youth: A Dangerous Mix


We borrowed the title for this post from the eye-opening report written by our recent guest Michele Simon, of Marin Institute and James Mosher, of Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

We have been talking a lot lately about energy drinks and other new generations of sodas aimed at our youth. Fact is, as previously mentioned, the energy drink market has been growing at a staggering 12% rate each year.

Unfortunately, the definition for energy drinks is quite vague: Wikipedia defines them as soft drinks advertised as being specifically designed to provide energy. One key word is: advertised as. Note that the claim does not have to be supported by facts, nor does it have to guarantee the drink is safe... What all these beverages have in common is caffeine. For an exhaustive database of caffeine content in energy drinks, check here.
All of them have a sweet taste, either from sugars, or artificial sweeteners. Then, a bunch of processed, "herbal" ingredients, not all regulated by our agencies. In brief, anything that creates the feeling of being boosted. So here comes alcohol. It was Michele Simon who brought these new kinds of cool sodas to our attention last month on air, and ever since, news from the beverage industry has kept ringing alarms:

Today, we learned that Anheuser-Busch Cos. is planning to invest more into digital advertising to attract young, web-savvy "contemporary adults." The brewer is increasingly using the web to spread and fine-tune its advertising, as it allows the company to test edgy material that, in years past, would never have been seen for fear of causing offense on television.
This company is famous for its beer operations, but it sure made its entry into the lucrative, unregulated energy drink market. Although Spykes was withdrawn from the market, a bunch of related beverages are still offered. Here is a list, with products pictures. All-targeted to our youth. Now that Anheuser-Busch is mastering the art of edgy digital advertising -not regulated as TV advertising- we do see why the industry is so confident about the growth of this category.
At our youth' expense.
As Michele Simon states, it is urgent that both scientists and policymakers should focus increased attention on this emerging product category.

The Whole Grain claim


Here is an interesting entry from the NYT's Well blog. This shows one more time that we should read closely ingredients lists not to be misled by such claims as "100% whole grain". Should we want the full benefits -and taste- from whole grains, all grains ingredients should read "whole". Obvious? Read these labels again...

Soda Tax?


San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom wants large grocery stores to pay fees on sodas and other beverages they sell in the city to help fight obesity. The proposed law would charge retail chains for stocking drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, reported The Modesto Bee. Here is the New York Times story.

Inside the energy drink machine


From the online forum Shaping Youth, this post, which exposes all stakes involved, both for the industry, and for our youth -to whom these new kinds of sodas are marketed to:

Two new industry reports today show soda’s rate of decline has tripled since last year. BUT (there’s always a “but”) the marketing machine has replaced the churn with energy jolts of caffeine, sports drinks of sodium and sugar, and ready-to-drink (RTD) teas and coffees.

“Who wants to be seen with a ‘cola’ when Frappuccino is available. And Fruit 20. And Snapple Green Tea with EGCG. And Red Bull. And…whaddya call that stuff nobody used to drink when it was free? Oh, yeah…Water,” quipped Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield.

As fickle folks flock to the next big ‘thang’ Shaping Youth is working hard to ‘idiot proof’ the media messages so parents and kids can discern the caffeine con from the get go, especially with all the unregulated ‘dietary supplements’ and wacky health claims coming onto the scene.

Shaping Youth anticipated kids being blitzed with ‘functional food’ claims of ‘healthier junk’ early on which is why we started counter-marketing sports drinks in 2005, energy drinks in 2006, and ALL ‘performance’ enhanced beverages in 2007 to open kids’ eyes to how industry changes the lens of the scope, while keeping kids in the crosshairs of their target marketing.

Functional claims and dietary supplements are ‘fuzzy’ at best. Products using words like “science blended” and “herbally enhanced” are not remotely regulated by the FDA. One MD has a concise overview called Quack Watch which pops the top on supplements. And CSPI’s “Functional foods: Public health boon or 21st century quackery?” goes deeper into the background.

I double-dog-dare you to TRY to sort out the acronym-laden governmental guidelines of the NLEA, DSHEA, FDA, to see if they’re GRAS or not. (GRAS=”generally recognized as safe”—you get my drift)

This is why I find functional claims to be even more damaging than blatantly bogus ones.

It’s much easier for me to “red flag” key watch words to kids than to deconstruct the elaborate ‘greenwashing,’ nutritional benefits, new age cure-alls and health claims being paraded out in these ‘better for you’ energy concoctions.

Sports and energy drinks are often pumped up as ‘healthier hydration.’ (yet some have the opposite effect since they’re chock full of sodium & sugar; the higher the sugar the slower the absorption and dehydration risk)

They’re sniped with banners of “vitamins, nutrients, calcium fortification” and all kinds of exotic herbal supplements from gingko biloba and ginseng to guarana, the Brazilian, natural plant stimulant akin to caffeine.

Then they’re poured into kids with aspirational marketing using athletes, celebs, and ‘active lifestyle’ packaging.

Here’s the new C1.5 energy drink from the NBA’s Carmelo Anthony that debuted just in time for the All-Stars in Vegas a few weeks ago. Sheesh.

When you figure half the market growth is in this realm, you KNOW where the money’s gonna land as everyone and his uncle comes out with their own version. (yes, even dead rock icons)

I get hyper just hearing the descriptors of “shooters, zips, shots, fizzes, spikes and tonics” that jack up the ‘need’ and zing the newest health craze into kids’ growing, youthful bods.

Beverage Marketing Corp’s CEO confirmed, “Beverages offering functional benefits are growing two to three times faster than conventional refreshment beverages.”

For perspective, though, the big kahuna is STILL soda.

Even after sliding 1.1% it still commands almost 51% of the overall beverage market…all four of the fastest-growing segments still make up just 7.8% of total volume.

Energy drinks grew 49% (to a measly 0.8% share) followed by ready-to-drink teas, which surged 26.2% compared with 9% in 2005, sports drinks grew 11.7% and ready-to-drink coffees grew 10.4%. Interesting.

Seems to me, they’re literally slapping the word ‘energy’ on a label, tossing in a few functional claims, a wee bit of juice or some clever packaging to spike sales without venturing too far away from soda at all…

It’s now ‘healthy soda.’

Example? 7UpPlus. Is the public REALLY this naïve? Um, guess so.

Why else would the giants be rushing to bring new “vitamin-fortified soft drinks” to market, like “Diet Coke Plus” or PepsiCo’s “Tava” (due later this year) in a desperate attempt to put some fizz into flat sales of carbonated soft-drinks?!

Diet Coke Plus will contain niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium and zinc. Tava will contain vitamins B3, B6 and E, and chromium.

Geez. Grab some leafy greens and call it a day, megadoses of vitamin B are unproven and controversial.

In the monster category of ‘performance’ energy drinks with ‘ergogenic aids’, you’d fail to pass the International Olympic Committee piddle test in a red hot minute. Nevertheless, they’re big…and energy drink vending machines are next.

In 2007 alone, we’ve already seen some pretty toxic fallout of energy drinks as marketers crank out a new brand at the rate of about one a day.

Many are lured by the pitch to make a healthier choice without bothering to see ‘all energy drinks are NOT created equal, and some contain copious quantities of caffeine with adverse effects on kids health…fouling up sleep, creating anxiety, even bed wetting.

Some fall in the “hardcore” caffeine category like the new Spike Shooter targeting teens with ‘six times the kick’ in a ‘bad to the bone’ heavy metal ‘Get Spiked’ campaign that’s already hurt six high school kids making the news in Colorado.

Science Blogs breaks down the “so what” factor by explaining the 300 mg of caffeine that most likely led to the kids’ heart palpitations, nausea and shortness of breath.

Their PhD Pharmacologist also gives a heads up on the dangers of blending caffeine with sympathomimetics like ephedrine, making note of the mortality cases from weight loss supplements that led to the US ditching that drug altogether.

We’re doing a related interview with poison control on teen’s use of energy drinks and alcohol since they’re seeing surges of toxicity among the Red Bull & Vodka set.

Aside from being ‘wide awake drunks’ kids are making impaired decisions ‘feeling’ more sober than they really are and getting behind the wheel…Killer combo, literally.
Read full entry here.

Here is a nutrition info sheet on Energy Drinks from the Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis.

From, the news that Miller, Anheuser-Busch May Be Illegally Targeting Teens with Energy Drinks containing alcohol.

Last, examines how beverages with artificial sweeteners react with alcohol: The low-carb-dieting craze has led to an increased consumption of diet beverages being used in mixed alcoholic drinks. Premixed alcoholic drinks were usually made with sugar-sweetened beverages like juice and soda. The presence of sugar was thought to decrease the rapidity with which alcohol would empty from the stomach and get absorbed in the small intestines, but nothing was known about how artificial sweeteners would impact the absorption of alcohol.

A recent study examined the difference in blood alcohol levels from drinks containing sweetened (regular) versus artificially sweetened (diet) beverages. This study found a significant difference in blood alcohol levels between the two drinks. In fact, the "diet" beverage produced blood alcohol levels that would be considered illegal for driving in many jurisdictions, while comparable quantities of the "regular" beverage did not. This poses a potentially dangerous situation, and it is clear that there should be separate guidelines for the safe consumption of artificially sweetened alcoholic beverages.

A very complex machine indeed. Hopefully regulations will catch up soon with the beverage industry's marketing.

The irony behind the new functional foods


This outrageous article -mentioned in today's Marion Nestle's blog- shows us an insider's take on the processed functional foods behind-the scene business.FYI.

Calories per dollar to measure U.S. health


Here is an interesting piece found in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
Written by a doctor, not an economist, it is reminiscent of Michael Pollan's landmark article in the NYT -which made the case to re-visit Farm Bill's subsidies in order to make healthy produce competitive with commodities -corn, soy, etc.- that are staples for junk food.
Another spin on the idea that healthy food access should be a priority to our representatives.

On the dangers of artificial sweeteners


Here is an extract from a groundbreaking article:

Sugar substitutes and the potential danger of Splenda (& Aspartame, Saccharin, etc.)
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

Few of us are really aware of how many new Splenda® products there are in the supermarkets. We’ve been told that this artificial sweetener is different from all the past failures — Sweet’N Low®, NutraSweet®, etc. — and according to the claims, that this Splenda is the perfect sugar substitute: as sweet as sugar, but no calories; as sweet as sugar, but no surge in insulin; as sweet as sugar, but no side effects or long-term health damage.

The wave is coming because “low–sugar” or “sugar–free” is the latest fad — a welcome trend, given the health hazards of all the sugar in the average diet. But of the hundreds of new diet foods that will soon appear, most will use Splenda as a sugar substitute. This is important because for tens of millions of women, their diet soda or artificially-sweetened food is a keystone of what they think are healthy nutrition and food choices — both for themselves and for their families.

On the other side of the argument are responsible experts who say that Splenda is unsafe — the latest in a succession of artificial sweeteners that claim at first to be healthy, only later to be proven to be full of side effects. These authorities say that Splenda has more in common with DDT than with food.

What do we believe? We think that our regulatory system doesn’t do a good enough job ensuring our long-term safety. We’re concerned about the bigger picture, too — the dependence on sweets in the American diet to make us feel good — whether those sweets are satisfied by sugar or artificial sweeteners like Splenda. And we are especially sensitive to the women who can benefit from using artificial sweeteners as a bridge to a better life with healthier nutrition.

What should you think about artificial sweeteners? We want you to be fully informed about the dangers of Splenda (which isn’t what food marketers want!) so you can make the best choices for yourself and for your family. So let’s make sure you are.

Splenda — the public health experiment

“Low–sugar” is the successor to the “low–carb” craze, even though they are essentially the same thing. According to the New York Times, by the end of this summer 11% of the food items on supermarket shelves will be labeled “reduced sugar” — most of those targeted at kids and their health-conscious moms. Sales in granulated sugar have dropped four percent in the past six months. What’s behind this trend? Splenda.

Products featuring Splenda are perceived as “natural” because even the FDA’s press release about sucralose parrots the claim that “it is made from sugar” — an assertion disputed by the Sugar Association, which is suing Splenda’s manufacturer, (McNeil Nutritionals).

The FDA has no definition for “natural,” so please bear with us for a biochemistry moment: Splenda is the trade name for sucralose, a synthetic compound stumbled upon in 1976 by scientists in Britain seeking a new pesticide formulation. It is true that the Splenda molecule is comprised of sucrose (sugar) — except that three of the hydroxyl groups in the molecule have been replaced by three chlorine atoms. (To get a better picture of what this looks like, see this image of a sucralose molecule.)

While some industry experts claim the molecule is similar to table salt or sugar, other independent researchers say it has more in common with pesticides. That’s because the bonds holding the carbon and chlorine atoms together are more characteristic of a chlorocarbon than a salt — and most pesticides are chlorocarbons. The premise offered next is that just because something contains chlorine doesn’t guarantee that it’s toxic. And that is also true, but you and your family may prefer not to serve as test subjects for the latest post-market artificial sweetener experiment — however “unique.”

Once it gets to the gut, sucralose goes largely unrecognized in the body as food — that’s why it has no calories. The majority of people don’t absorb a significant amount of Splenda in their small intestine — about 15% by some accounts. The irony is that your body tries to clear unrecognizable substances by digesting them, so it’s not unlikely that the healthier your gastrointestinal system is, the more you’ll absorb the chlorinated molecules of Splenda.

So, is Splenda safe? The truth is we just don’t know yet. There are no long-term studies of the side effects of Splenda in humans. The manufacturer’s own short-term studies showed that sucralose caused shrunken thymus glands and enlarged livers and kidneys in rodents. But in this case, the FDA decided that because these studies weren’t based on human test animals, they were not conclusive. Of course, there are countless examples of foods and drugs that have proved dangerous to humans that were first found to be dangerous to laboratory rats, and then again, countless others that have not. So the reality is that we are the guinea pigs for Splenda.

And now, are our children the next trial group? Thanks to an agreement between McNeil Nutritionals (makers of Splenda) and PTO Today, which provides marketing and fund-raising aid to parents’ associations, your elementary school’s next bake sale may be sponsored by Splenda — complete with baked goods made with the product.

Splenda side effects
Observational evidence shows that there are side effects of Splenda, including skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain. These show up at one end of the spectrum — in the people who have an allergy or sensitivity to the sucralose molecule. But no one can say to what degree consuming Splenda affects the rest of us.

If this sounds familiar, it should: we went down the same path with aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet. Almost all of the independent research into aspartame found dangerous side effects in rodents. The FDA chose not to take these findings into account when it approved aspartame for public use. Over the course of 15 years, those same side effects increasingly appeared in humans. Not in everyone, of course — but in those who were vulnerable to the chemical structure of aspartame.

As food additives, artificial sweeteners are not subject to the same gauntlet of FDA safety trials as pharmaceuticals. Most of the testing is funded by the food industry, which has a vested interest in the outcome. This can lead to misleading claims on both sides.

But one thing is certain: some of the chemicals that comprise artificial sweeteners are known hazards — the degree to which you experience side effects just depends on your individual biochemistry. Manufacturers are banking on the fact that our bodies won’t absorb very much of these compounds at any one time. And many of us don’t. But what happens when we are ingesting a combination of artificial sweeteners like Splenda dozens of times a week through many different “low–sugar” or “sugar–free” products?

People have been using artificial sweeteners for decades. Some react poorly, some don’t — the problem is, you never know until you’re already sick. Scientists are calling Splenda a mild mutagen, based on how much is absorbed. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what portion of the population is being exposed to the dangers of Splenda or already suffering from Splenda side effects. Until an independent, unbiased research group conducts long-term studies on humans (six months is hardly long-term!), how can we be certain? With all the new Splenda products on our shelves, it looks as if we are now in the process of another grand public experiment — without our permission. And we may not know the health implications for decades. As with all things, time will unveil truth.

So I urge you to be concerned about the potential dangers of Splenda — as with any unnatural substance you put in your body. And I am especially concerned about its use for children, which I recommend you avoid. But unlike many holistic practitioners, I do think artificial sweeteners can serve a purpose for some women. And that has to do with the old question — which is better, sugar or an artificial sweetener? Let’s start with sugar, where the problems all begin.

Sugar and insulin: the energy rush

Like Pooh Bear and the honey jar, sweet treats are the comfort food of choice for most of us. Usually we’ve had powerful emotional incentives set up in childhood — like getting a lollipop after a doctor’s visit — and most of us unconsciously associate sugar with love, pleasure, and reward. Why else would we call our dear ones “honey,” “sugar,” and “sweetie”?

There’s an equally strong biological urge here that’s hard-wired. We’re predisposed to seek out sugar when we can find it. After all, sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate. It’s metabolized directly into blood sugar, or glucose, which fuels our brain and muscles. The purer the source, the faster it gets into the bloodstream, bypassing much of the digestive process.

Eating sugar shoots our blood sugar levels up and triggers a spike in the hormone insulin, which is needed to prep our cells to absorb the sugar. If there are no other nutrients to sustain our blood sugar level, it crashes as quickly as it rises — and we crave another hit. This is how sugar addiction begins.

Moreover, sugar floods us with pleasure by stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and probably other mood-elevating substances. Scientists report that eating chocolate initiates a brain response similar to falling in love.

And so our brains have learned over time to equate the taste of “sweet” with a rapid infusion of energy and pleasure — a good thing when food was hard-won and life a battle to survive. Even now when we eat sweet foods, special taste buds trigger enzymes that prime our brain to anticipate this extra boost. With a balanced diet and a healthy metabolism, a calorie–control mechanism kicks in after a few minutes to regulate the desire for more food, including the satiety hormone leptin. But with too much sugar, we eat and eat and can’t get satisfied.

Another big difference between prehistoric times and now is that sugar back then came solely from complex natural sources that had other nutritional qualities, such as fruit, honey, bark, and leaves. And because naturally sweet food is seasonal, ripening with the sun in the summer or growing almost exclusively in warm climates, it was relatively rare in past times.

The evolution of sugar

Over thousands of years our bodies used naturally sweet food safely and efficiently in this way. But then what happened? As our knowledge evolved, we grew adept at refining pure sugar from its food source. Sugar became its own food group — an empty calorie, devoid of protein, fat, or fiber — but still relatively rare.

As shipping and trade routes grew, sugar became widely available. New refining technology put granulated white sugar on every table, replacing the more nutritionally complex honey, molasses, barley and maple sugars. These had been generally added to food after preparation or to taste during baking and preserving, not pumped into the food itself.

Enter the modern era with its advanced food-processing techniques and competitive food companies, and presto! Refined sugar is everywhere and in everything.

Sugar is a food processor’s fantasy: it’s cheap, it adds bulk and texture, and it makes consumers prefer their product over a less-sweet alternative. So now consumers get sugar everywhere, from simple carbohydrates (so-called white food) to pure granulated sugar, and in other forms like dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, and high–fructose corn syrup. These empty calories take the place of real nutrients — so while we eat and gain weight, we’re actually starving our cells.

The health effects of sugar
What happens to our metabolism, on all that sugar? Remember, we’re still primitive at a cellular level. What starts out initially as a survival tool quickly becomes a crutch if sugar is easy to procure. A sugar craving (which is really a craving for an energy and serotonin surge) becomes a habit.

We unwittingly reprogram our biochemistry to perpetuate these cravings. What’s more, this process is exacerbated by stress — because that’s when your body needs immediate energy and serotonin. We often put our bodies through the binge–crash cycle several times a day. Your fatigue tells you to have that extra cup of coffee or high–carb snack at mid-morning and again in the afternoon.

When you look at the huge increase in sugar in our diets this past century — particularly in processed foods — you see that it marches in step with the epidemic increase in metabolic diseases. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American is supplied with 140 pounds of caloric sweeteners per year. That’s 43 teaspoons for every man, woman and child every day! The USDA recommends an average of 10 teaspoons a day for a healthy adult (still too much for most women, in my book). The biggest sources are the corn sugar and corn syrup found in beverages like juice drinks and soda.

If we really listened to our bodies, we probably wouldn’t consume so much sugar. Our love affair with sugar has enjoyed a slow and subtle evolution — with daily nudges from the food industry. But our bodies simply aren’t equipped to handle such large amounts of sugar on a daily basis. Even in the short term, too much sugar can trigger headaches, tooth decay, and indigestion.

Over time, your body loses the ability to make enough sugar-digesting enzymes to meet the demand, and sugar sensitivity develops. Women tend to notice this more during perimenopause, when excess sugar and other simple carbohydrates trigger symptoms of hormonal imbalance.

Excess sugar consumption also upsets the balance of intestinal flora in your digestive tract and can cause symptoms of intestinal distress such as bloating, cramping, and gas (for more on this, see our section on digestion). Other symptoms of sugar sensitivity are headaches, insomnia, aggression, panic attacks, irritability, mood swings, and depression. Too much sugar can deplete levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter whose deficiency is linked to depression. What’s worse, low levels of serotonin actually trigger more sugar cravings.

New studies in accelerated aging link elevated sugar intake with a process called glycosylation: proteins in our bodies morph into AGE’s, or advanced glycosylation end-products, a kind of metabolic debris that collects in our organ, joint, and skin tissues.

Long-term sugar intolerance leads to type 2 diabetes and other complications like obesity and inflammation. Drinking more than one soda a day raises your risk of serious weight gain by 80%.

If it’s a natural food, why is sugar so hard to digest? Again, it’s the sheer quantity not the substance itself that causes concern. Studies show that our bodies actually work harder in sugar’s afterburn to restore metabolic homeostasis.

So is it any surprise that we’ve turned to artificial sweeteners for answers? For women trying to stay healthy, artificial sweeteners can seem like the best of both worlds — sugar without calories. But there simply is no free lunch. Artificial sweeteners can be just as troublesome, with one exception: sugar addiction — those of us who simply cannot stop eating sugar once we start. In this case, artificial sweeteners may help short-circuit the dependency.

Aspartame and saccharin: are they safer than Splenda?

Aside from Splenda, the most popular artificial sweeteners are aspartame (and its cousin, neotame) and saccharin. Foods with these additives are marketed to women as low-fat, low-sugar, and low-calorie.

Diet programs like Weight Watchers sell low-calorie foods that trade real nutrients for artificial ingredients, including sugar substitutes. I think it’s great to try and lose unwanted weight, but I question whether these packaged items should be marketed as healthy choices. Good nutrition needs to take more into account than calories and fat content — especially when it comes to how many artificial sweeteners we’re eating and what we’re mixing them with.

Dangers in aspartame
Aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet, is responsible for the most serious cases of poisoning, because the body actually digests it. Aspartame should be avoided by most women, but particularly in those with neuropsychiatric concerns. Recent studies in Europe show that aspartame use can result in an accumulation of formaldehyde in the brain, which can damage your central nervous system and immune system and cause genetic trauma. The FDA admits this is true, but claims the amount is low enough in most that it shouldn’t raise concern. I think any amount of formaldehyde in your brain is too much.

Aspartame has had the most complaints of any food additive available to the public. It’s been linked with MS, lupus, fibromyalgia and other central nervous disorders. Possible side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, panic attacks, dizziness, irritability, nausea, intestinal discomfort, skin rash, and nervousness. Some researchers have linked aspartame with depression and manic episodes. It may also contribute to male infertility.

Saccharin, the first widely available chemical sweetener, is hardly mentioned any more. Better-tasting NutraSweet took its place in almost every diet soda, but saccharin is still an ingredient in some prepared foods, gum, and over-the-counter medicines. Remember those carcinogen warnings on the side of products that contained saccharin? They no longer appear because industry testing showed that saccharin only caused bladder cancer in rats. Most researchers agree that in sufficient doses, saccharin is carcinogenic in humans. The question is, how do you know how much artificial sweeteners your individual body can tolerate?

That being said, some practitioners think saccharin in moderation is the best choice if you must have an artificially sweetened beverage or food product. It’s been around a relatively long time and seems to cause fewer problems than aspartame. I don’t argue with this recommendation, but I encourage you to find out as much as you can about any chemical before you ingest it.

Artificial sweeteners are body toxins. They are never a good idea for pregnant women, children or teenagers — despite the reduced sugar content — because of possible irreversible cell damage. If you decide it’s worth the risks, then go ahead, but pay attention to your body and your cravings. Once you start tracking your response to artificial sweeteners, it may surprise you.

Short-circuiting the insulin spike

Basically, artificial sweeteners confuse your brain. The enzymes in your mouth begin a cascade that primes your cell receptors for an insulin surge, and when it doesn’t arrive your brain feels cheated. That’s why most diet sodas are loaded with caffeine — so you’ll still feel a jolt.

But even if your brain is distracted momentarily, soon enough it wants the energy boost you promised it — and you find yourself craving carbohydrates. In one study, people who used artificial sweeteners ate up to three times the amount of calories as the control group. But again, this is individual. It all comes down to the brain’s perception of calories, which can get thrown off whenever artificial ingredients are substituted for whole foods.

To learn more about the specific dangers of aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), you may watch this well-documented movie, or check on this press release related to scientific studies performed on rats. Here is a statement from CSPI on the subject. Last, an article from British Daily Mail announcing how a leading UK grocery chain banned aspartame from their offerings.

Anyone still interested in a diet drink?

Japanese diet threatened by Westernization


Krispy Kreme will open 30 to 50 more stores in Japan over the next five years, due to the success of its current outlets, according to Takashi Sawada, board director of Krispy Kreme Doughnut Japan Company, reported
Just take a look at this video showing a seemingly neverending line on the opening day of a Krispy Kreme store.
Their "local" competitors are Mister Donut, and other fast food franchises like McDonald's, Cold Stone Creamery and Burger King.
The shifting Japanese taste for sweeter and calorie busting fast food comes at a time when Japanese healthier foods such as tofu and sushi are fast gaining adherents in the U.S. and other western nations.

Weekly food consumption of families: Chad


Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Bhutan


Bhutan: The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Ecuador


Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week: $31.55

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Egypt


Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo
Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Poland


Poland: The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna
Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Mexico


Mexico: The Casales family of Cuernavaca
Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: United States


United States: The Revis family of North Carolina (Sure hope most American families eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less junk food than this family.)

Food expenditure for one week $341.98

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Germany


Germany: The Melander family of Bargteheide
Food expenditure for one week: 375.39 Euros or $500.07

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

Weekly food consumption of families: Sicily


Italy: The Manzo family of Sicily
Food expenditure for one week: 214.36 Euros or $260.11

From our BANPAC connection: Take a good look at the family size & diet of each country, and the availability & cost of what is eaten in one week. Compare the proportion of industrial, processed foods and beverages in the week's groceries, and how healthy the family looks.

On the probiotics/prebiotics craze


Probiotics and prebiotics are becoming increasingly popular in foods including yogurt, smoothies, snack bars, cereals, baby formula and chocolate. The "good bacteria" additives have been added to 150 products this year by companies including Dannon and Kraft, reported The Associated Press.

As the article points out, research is needed to back up all these claims... One thing we know: Yogurt, kefir, and all traditionally fermented milk beverages have been around for millenia. The good bacteria thrives in them. Now what really happens to these bacteria when dehydrated, and added to some processed food or supplement? How can they survive in a non-nourishing environment? Aren't these friendly bacteria supposed to work their wonders when alive? While waiting for un-biased scientific studies to give us firm answers, we shall remain skeptical.

Consumption of Sugary Drinks Linked to Alzheimer's Disease


Excessive drinking of sugary beverages may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology reported

Sweetened beverages leading to obesity, and now Alzheimer' s: Do we need more reasons to demand that all sweetened beverages be removed from our schools' premises?

Sugars in Drinks and Obesity: More evidence of correlation


According to Marion Nestle's blog today, a new study from U. North Carolina measures soft drink consumption in the U.S. population from 1965 to 2002. The increase is 21%–and a whopping 222 calories per day, close to the reported increase in calorie intake from all sources over that time period. The authors count all sweetened drinks: traditional colas, juice drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and vitamin waters.
You will also find a bunch of worldwide scientific studies on showing an overwhelming correlation between intake of sugars from beverages -in particular fructose, which is half of sugar and more than half of high fructose corn syrup- and obesity.

Meanwhile, we just stumbled on this press release from the Energy drink industry, which proudly announces that Energy drinks are expected to grow at an annual rate of 12% -Sales expected to exceed $9 Billion by 2011. Energy drinks are the latest offspring of the sweetened beverages category. Boasting all sorts of claims, unfortunately not regulated by FDA, they tend to make us forget the sugars that go with the other ingredients -safe or not.

Here is a quite comprehensive list of sugar content in soft drinks and energy drinks. Enjoy, and keep in mind that the maximum daily recommended allowance for added sugars is 40g...

This UCSF Children's hospital webpage helps you understand the correlation, and pinpoints which types of drinks to avoid -and they include 100% fruit juices in the list- and which ones to choose.
Another resource is this presentation from CDC, aptly named Rethink Your Drink.

Meanwhile, let's keep in mind that most of these sweetened beverages are still allowed to be sold in schools. Even Paul Harkins's proposed amendment to the Farm Bill plans to keep quite a few offenders available in schools... Drink for thought.