Diet Coke is the devil’s drink

Diet pop is a bad, bad thing. Here are some reasons we should stop drinking it.

Jason Ketola

I’m writing this column as a kind of intervention – for me and for the hipster boys, sorority girls and soccer moms who enjoy the pleasures of Diet Coke and other diet pops a bit too liberally. “What’s wrong with drinking diet pop?” you ask. I’ll count the ways after a bit of self-indictment.

It makes perfect sense that I’m sipping from a 20-ounce bottle right now, both as a morning pick-me-up and to clear the aftereffects of a late Saturday night. I’m not a fan of coffee. Things become a little more obviously problematic when one notices all the empty cans and bottles adorning my apartment and the fact that it isn’t unheard-of to take a can into the shower with me.

It’s funny that a person can walk two overflowing bags of beer cans out to the recycling bin and people will think, “Whoa, that guy must have thrown a ragin’ party.” When I do the same with my bags of Diet Pepsi cans, the typical response is, “That guy has a problem.”

Aside from being weird, what’s so bad about this? We can begin by cross-applying several of the reasons given for not smoking. The cost adds up. Constantly thinking about one’s addiction is annoying. And one’s teeth don’t exactly benefit from being doused in carbonic acid and phosphoric acid over and over again. The Internet is rife with incredible pictures of people’s grills that have been seriously jacked by excessive pop consumption.

If you’re like me, these reasons for not drinking pop don’t carry much weight. My teeth haven’t fallen out of my head, I generally can’t think of a better use for my money than my daily caffeine fix and it’s not an addiction that requires a whole lot of thought, since pop is a ubiquitous substance. Of course, it’s somewhat embarrassing that every grocery trip to the local co-op to stock up on health foods needs to be followed by a jaunt over to the nearest gas station for some bubbly.

Let’s find some better reasons to give up pop. Many of us are aware of the charges leveled against Coke for being complicit in the murders of union leaders in their bottling plants in Columbia, Mo., and for mismanagement of water resources in the Kerala region of India. If there’s truth to these charges – and I’m inclined to think there is, given the not-infrequent misbehavior of corporations – these should be the only reasons you and I need to give up Diet Coke and any other Coke products.

These charges notwithstanding, letter to the editor writers have heralded Coke for its “contributions” to the University community in the form of grants for student groups’ events. Sure, it’s nice that we get a kickback for giving Coke an exclusive contract on campus, but I can’t help but think about how petty this sum must be compared with all the revenue Coke garners and all the lifelong customers who are shaped. Imagine if we took the message in Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality” to heart and donated our singles instead of pumping them into pop machines. We could match those grants and then some.

Any discussion of diet pop undoubtedly will include some speculation about the negative health effects of aspartame, the artificial sweetener found in most diet pops. The notion that aspartame ingestion has horrific effects always has struck me as the kind of overstatement non-pop-drinkers use to proclaim their superiority. With aspartame finding its way into thousands of products worldwide, one would think any ill effects would be known by now. Then again, the fact that so many companies have vested interests in keeping aspartame legal should make us a little skeptical, particularly in light of its sketchy approval history.

Aspartame’s sordid history begins in 1965 when it was discovered by a researcher working on an ulcer drug. Seeing the potential for a substance hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and having no calories, the Searle Company, which owned the patent, began applying for Food and Drug Administration approval. The substance received FDA approval in the 1970s for restricted use in dry foods, and almost immediately the Searle Company was investigated by the FDA and was found to have manipulated research claiming its safety. Donald Rumsfeld was hired as the chief financial officer of Searle in 1977 and helped Ronald Reagan pick the new FDA commissioner in 1981. Almost immediately the new commissioner overruled the findings against aspartame and only a few years later aspartame was approved for use in beverages, despite pleas by the National Soft Drink Association for further safety testing.

If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. A look at the research on aspartame indicates that its effects on laboratory animals include brain tumors and grand mal seizures. Not being a scientist, I’m not sure why this research hasn’t been taken more seriously, but the fact that politics seem to have informed what studies have been counted sure makes me wonder.

In summary, I’m well convinced there are a lot of better and healthier ways for us to spend our money than on diet pop. As someone who downs copious amounts of the stuff, I know quitting won’t be easy, but it sure seems necessary – at the very least – to prevent the daily walks of shame over to Holiday for 12-packs. So, if you happen to see me making a beeline for a vending machine, please run some interference.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]