Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thirsting for Greed

The old-fashioned soda fountain.
What could be more American than soda pop? The genteel term "soda pop" originated in the 1860s from the popping sound of escaping gas as a soda bottle was opened. Today, soft drinks rank as America's favorite beverage, representing 25 percent of the total beverage market.

Some of my earliest memories of this drink involve putting a dime in a vending machine and being rewarded with a bottle of carbonated manna. And who, of my generation, does not remember the local soda fountain where you could get an ice cream soda or cherry cola on a hot summer afternoon? A local restaurant used to make homemade birch beer by the pitcher that was heaven in a glass.

Why all this reverie over a fizzy drink? Well, it would seem that this carbonated joy has a dark side. I know. You’ve had it with people telling you that the things you enjoy most are out to get you. In this case, however, it may be worth a read. Some recent studies have said some less than wonderful things about soda pop. I'm not a scientist and wouldn't represent myself as one. Fortunately, there are many scientists out there who are concerned about their own health and we can benefit from that. That said, what I discovered from my research into this subject is that you may want to back away slowly from your favorite carbonated beverage and even some fruit juices. Here’s why:

Liquid Energy

Everyone knows that both caffeine and sugar cause dehydration, so no big surprise there. Many people are not aware that these ingredients also cause the depletion of minerals from the body. A study was done in which two groups of children, 13 to 18 years old, were given one of two drinks, a caffeinated sugar-free drink, or a drink containing both caffeine and sugar. When caffeine was added to their diet, calcium excretion in the urine increased by 25 percent. When sugar was added as well, urinary calcium loss almost doubled. I have not seen any studies on adults so I do not know if the effects would differ.

Soft drink enthusiast enjoying his beverage.
In addition, eating sugar lowers immune function by reducing the ability of white blood cells to ingest and destroy bacteria. This lowered immune function can last for five hours or more after the ingestion of sugar. This effect is particularly strong with liquid sugar such as soda or juice, which shoots quickly into the bloodstream. An Israeli study from 2009 found that when the body filters sugar out of the blood from soda or fruit juices—even "healthy" fresh-squeezed juices—over time, that can result in a fatty liver, which may lead to diabetes and heart disease. The study suggested drinking water and eating whole fruits, which digest more slowly, as a healthier approach.

Phosphoric Acid

Phosphoric acid is added to sodas to give them a tangy or sour taste. This chemical is also used  in fertilizers, detergents and can melt rust. My father, who had a machine shop, told me that soda was commonly used to clean industrial machinery. Phosphoric acid also can erode your bones and the enamel on your teeth.

Calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus must be maintained in the proper balance for bone health. When too much phosphorus is in the blood, calcium is leached from the bones, causing osteoporosis. Even in citrus sodas, which contain citric acid instead of phosphoric acid, bone calcium is needed to normalize blood pH. That may be because most citric acids these days, rather than being made from lemons and limes, are actually formulated from fermented Aspergillus niger mold from scrap molasses, waste starch hydrolysates, and phosphoric acid. I have no idea what some of that stuff is, but I cling to the old food label adage that if you don’t know what it is or have problems pronouncing it, you should not be putting it in your mouth. One website indicated that the fastest growing group of people with osteoporosis in this country is teenagers because of the huge number of sodas they consume.

Caramel Color

Caramel coloring may be processed with caustic chemicals, sulfites or ammonia. Caramel coloring is currently on the FDA list of substances to be tested for teratogenic (biological deformities), mutagenic and reproductive effects. It is a suspected carcinogen and may cause inflammation of the tongue, scalp lesions, dandruff, and hair loss. I am a little puzzled as to why this is on a list to be tested for potential health problems AFTER it has been approved for use in our beverages.

Natural Flavors

The word natural may be a misnomer. Natural flavors can be chemically extracted and processed, and in combination with other food additives, are not required to be listed on food labels. They may include free glutamates, which can cause brain damage, especially in children, and can also cause headaches, itching, nausea,  reproductive disorders, high blood pressure and allergic reactions.

Benzene Anyone?

As of 2007, the FDA was investigating the formation of benzene in sodas. They had known about this for more than 15 years. I do not know why they dragged their feet in investigating it, nor do I know what the final outcome was, if any. However, you would be well advised to read the labels of any soda or juice you buy to make sure they do not contain the combination of these two ingredients: sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). Gee, how could something as wholesome as Vitamin C be unhealthy? Ah, chemistry. 

Unfortunately, these two preservatives, while in storage, react to produce benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. The warmer and older the soda, the more benzene. The FDA and soda makers have known about the problem since 1990 but the FDA assumed that the health-conscious soda producers would solve the problem. It wasn't until the FDA re-opened an inquiry into benzene in 2006 that manufacturers reacted. One of the worst offenders at that time had benzene levels as high as 90 parts per billion. The drinking water standard is 5 ppb. The manufacturers reformulated the drink and it went from 90 down to 4 ppb in 1 liter bottles and below 1 ppb in 16 oz. bottles. Not all sodas that were tested had benzene in them. In fact, there was tremendous variation in what the FDA found.

According to the The, a partner of, benzene exposure is commonly associated with leukemia and a large number of blood diseases. Also, sodium benzoate, all by itself, has been associated with recurring rashes, asthma and eczema, according to Dr. Marcia Zimmerman, author of The A.D.D. Nutrition Solution.

Artificial Sweeteners—Sucralose

In 1975, sucralose was discovered during research on insecticides. An Indian researcher misunderstood his supervisor, so when he was told to "test" the substance, he thought he was being told to "taste" the substance. He did, and found it was sweet. Consequently, it was sold to the food processing industry. Few human studies of safety have been published on sucralose. One small study of diabetic patients using the sweetener showed a statistically significant increase in glycosylated hemoglobin (Hba1C), which is used to assess long-term glycemic control in diabetic patients. An increase in Hba1C is associated with increased cardiac mortality.

Sucralose breaks down into small amounts of 1,6 -dichlorofructose, a chemical similar to chlorinated pesticides such as DDT. According to a legal article written at Harvard, opponents of the FDA's approval of sucralose have said that "sucralose contains chlorine, a key ingredient in many bleaches and pesticides and not a substance one would normally consider suitable as a food additive. Furthermore, though it is marketed in the United States as a 'no-calorie' sweetener, sucralose is not in fact entirely non-nutritive; 11-27% of any amount consumed is actually absorbed by the body. Finally, there have been no long-term studies of the effects of sucralose ingestion on human beings, and most of the existing short-term studies were conducted by the manufacturer." While there may not have been adequate testing of this product before it was released for public use, there have been some post-approval studies. I do not know the sources of all of these studies, but have seen these results listed on a number of websites:
  • Shrunken thymus glands (up to 40% shrinkage)
  • Enlarged liver and kidneys
  • Atrophy of lymph follicles in the spleen and thymus
  • Increased cecal weight
  • Reduced growth rate
  • Decreased red blood cell count
  • Hyperplasia of the pelvis
  • Aborted pregnancy (maternal & fetal toxicity)
  • Decreased fetal body weights and placental weights
Very depressing. Enough on that. Now let's go major depressive disorder and talk about aspartame.

Artificial Sweeteners—Aspartame

Aspartame was originally listed by the Pentagon as a biochemical warfare agent, according to Pat Thomas in The Ecologist. It is not clear from what I have read how it transitioned from that status to a food additive. It is banned for use in any products for children in Europe. That may be because earliest toxicological tests were not optimistic.

Biochemist Dr. Harry Waisman, director of the University of Wisconsin's Joseph P Kennedy Jr Memorial Laboratory of Mental Retardation Research and a respected expert in the toxicity of phenylalanine (which comprises 50 per cent of the aspartame formula), conducted a study of the effects of aspartame on primates. Of seven monkeys fed aspartame mixed with milk, one died and five others had grand mal epileptic seizures. In 1971, Dr. John Olney, professor of neuropathology and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, whose research into the neurotoxic food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG, a chemical cousin of aspartame) was responsible for having it removed from baby foods, conducted studies that found that aspartic acid, one of the main constituents of aspartame, causes holes in the brains of infant mice. That finding was confirmed in a second study by the manufacturer. According to a legal article written at Harvard, "in November 1996, an article in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology suggested that the incidence of brain tumors in the United States might have increased due to the introduction of aspartame in the food supply." This article was refuted by the FDA.

Okay, so aspartame does not appear to be good for monkeys and mice. What does it do in humans? Methanol is the third ingredient in aspartame. When ingested in the human body, methanol converts to the poison, formaldehyde, which in turn converts to formic acid, another potent toxin that can depress the central nervous system. The justification for claiming that the methanol in aspartame is safe is based on the position that methanol may also occur in fruit juices.

The difference with naturally occurring methanol in fruit juice, apparently, is that naturally occurring pectin and ethyl alcohol are counteracting agents. There are no such counteracting substances for the free methanol in aspartame. What does formaldehyde do in the body? Formaldehyde is a toxic substance that damages both the central nervous system and the immune system. Studies show that formaldehyde may accumulate in our cells and react with our DNA, causing permanent genetic damage and/or cancer.

How did aspartame get approved by the FDA? They based the approval on industry-funded research while ignoring contradictory independent aspartame research. The head of that agency overruled the board of inquiry he had appointed to look into the dangers of aspartame, then left the agency to go and work for—you guessed it—the marketers of aspartame. Mission accomplished.

Oh, FDA, Where Art Thou?

No one wants to believe that the FDA is not protecting us and that our food supply is a "buyers beware" proposition. It would appear, however, that the people who run our regulatory agencies may be ignoring our safety in pursuit of their thirst for greed. My Italian husband has this proverb. "It doesn't matter if the glass is half full or half empty when the drink has been poisoned." Unaware, Americans are drinking beverages of questionable safety every day. In the early 1990s, per capita consumption of soft drinks in the U.S. was 49 gallons, 15 gallons more than the next most popular beverage, water. The evidence would suggest that for many reasons, despite the pleasant memories most of us associate with soda pop, filtered water may be the healthier alternative in beverages.

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