Seema Chandra, Food Editor, NDTV, Updated: August 08, 2012 16:29 IST
If you ever happen to run out of conversation amongst a group of people, here's a topic that doesn't seem to lose its fizz - is diet coke safe for us to drink?
For almost any health related topic, you will find one tribe who will launch into lengthy cribs about the latest studies and what they show. In trying to dig out diet coke cons, it was quite evident that it inspires fierce devotion amongst it fans.
So what's the debate all about? It all boils down to aspartame, the sugar substitute that is used in diet cokes. It's that magic wand that converts your drink into a mere calorie or even less. But are these artificial sweeteners totally risk free?
No, obviously not. There have been reams and reams written about the hazards of consuming aspartame long term. Some say its carcinogenic, it can it cause memory loss, brain damage etc etc. A recent study done earlier this year in New York suggested that people who consumed diet coke were more likely to get heart disease than those who abstained. Around 2500 people were tested. But it failed to establish a direct link stating that people who drink the diet coke, are also more likely to be eating a pizza, a burger or fries that accompany the diet coke. So one could be stretching facts if we were to blame diet coke alone. Fair enough.
I have also had extensive chats with people at Coke, and they are quick in telling me that FDA would not ever have approved the product without putting it through rigorous tests and analysis. FDA gave its stamp of approval to aspartame way back in 1981 and since then it's become a multi billion dollar industry. But a lot of consumers are not aware that aspartame was one of the most contested approvals in FDA history. Loads of customers spoke up about physical complaints. Some say, the reason for that was that the FDA realized that people were consuming a much higher level of aspartame than they had expected, or what was known as the acceptable daily intake. So I am told that you have to consume an exceedingly large number of diet cokes before they begin to harm you. A coke bigwig states -- "I have had 8 to 9 cans a day for the last 15 years, and nothing has happened!"
Being a little more of a cautious consumer, I cant help wondering if that kind of consumption will play havoc with the taste buds. Anyone who has had a sip of diet coke will admit that it is way sweeter than any sugar they have eaten. Its a bit like eating food with a lot of salt at home, after which you are bound to find food outside the house relatively bland.
The prototype of the sweeteners is under constant scrutiny and churn. Decades ago it was saccharin, then we moved to aspartame, and now it's evolved into Stevia, a plant derivative. And as each new avataar is born a healthier baby, the older sibling gets trashed. Rarely will you find anyone today extol the virtues of saccharin.
What I find totally befuddling is that the very same chaps (and this is true of a lot of Indian men) will sip diet coke under the garb of controlling calories, but will think nothing of helping themselves to a large portion of dessert! This dichotomy, I fail to understand! Surely you can afford the calories in a regular coke can, and go easy on the sweet consumption elsewhere. But their logic is at least you save the calories somewhere!
It's for these very men, I am told by Coke officials that they changed the name - Diet Coke to Coke Zero, as men did not associate well with he word "diet".
Which brings me to believe that drinking a diet coke today goes way beyond being just the fizzy drink you drink. It seems to have become something larger. It's a lifestyle. It's a statement. And it doesn't leave a bittersweet aftertaste if consumed in moderation.