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Environmental News


From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I drink diet soda but I’m told it’s bad for me and linked to health problems. Is this true and if so can you suggest any healthier alternatives?
—Mitchell James, Ronkonkoma, NY

Researchers have found no direct links between diet sodas and specific human health problems. Initial reports that implicated aspartame, widely use to sweeten diet sodas, in a wide range of human health problems including cancer turned out to be false -- though certainly much healthier beverage choices abound.

While rumors have circulated for years that diet sodas are unhealthy, researchers have found no direct links between such drinks and specific human health problems. Aspartame (also known as NutraSweet) is the sugar-alternative of choice for most diet soda makers. It’s 180 times sweeter than sugar but contains no significant calories and does not promote tooth decay. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved aspartame in 1974, though health advocates held up its widespread use for over a decade.

Over half of Americans consume aspartame regularly in soda and other foods—all told, diet varieties accounted for some 29 percent of the soft drink market for the top 10 sodas in 2010, according to Beverage Digest—so it is certainly reasonable to be concerned about any potential health effects. However, initial reports that implicated aspartame in seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, birth defects, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity and even cancer turned out to be false (even a hoax), according to a wide range of reputable, peer-reviewed studies and clinical and epidemiological research.

Another concern that has been voiced about aspartame is that it produces methanol when metabolized, which converts to formaldehyde (and then formic acid) in the body. But studies have shown that the amount of methanol in aspartame is less than that found in natural sources such as fruit juices, citrus fruits and some fermented beverages, and that the amount of formaldehyde generated is also small compared to that produced routinely by the body from other foods and drugs.

While aspartame and diet sodas have not been linked directly to specific health problems, researchers who surveyed the eating, drinking, smoking and exercise habits of some 2,500 New Yorkers between 2003 and 2010 did find that those who drank at least one diet soda per day had a 61 percent higher risk of so-called vascular events (e.g. heart attack or stroke) than those who avoided Diet Coke and other products with aspartame. “If our results are confirmed with future studies, then it would suggest that diet soda may not be the optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages for protection against vascular outcomes,” reported the study’s lead author, Hannah Gardener of the University of Miami School of Medicine.

But others say that such a finding constitutes a link, not proof of cause and effect—and that those who have switched to diet sodas may be replacing the calories they used to get from regular sodas with other unhealthy foods that may be increasing their risk of heart attack or stroke.
The takeaway should be that those who drink soda regularly, diet or otherwise, should be sure to exercise and eat right otherwise. Or, better yet…give up the soda entirely. According to Katherine Zeratsky, a nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic, healthier choices abound. She suggests starting off the day with a glass of 100 percent fruit juice and then drinking skim milk with meals. “Sip water throughout the day,” she recommends. “For variety, try sparkling water or add a squirt of lemon or cranberry juice to your water.”

CONTACTS: “Miller School Researchers Link Diet Soda and Salt to Cardiovascular Risk”.



Dear EarthTalk: What is shark finning and why have several U.S. states outlawed it?
—Betsy Englund, Tampa, FL

The practice of shark finning to make shark fin soup, a delicacy mostly in Asian cultures, has taken a serious toll on shark populations worldwide.

Photo © Nicholas Wang, courtesy Flickr

Shark finning is the practice of catching sharks, hacking off their fins, and returning them to the ocean (maimed and unable to swim or circulate oxygen through their systems) where they starve to death, suffocate or get eaten by other predators. Fishermen sell the fins, typically on the black market, for use in shark fin soup, a delicacy throughout Asia and increasingly in other areas of the world with large Asian populations. Analysts value the worldwide market for shark fins at upwards of $1.2 billion annually.

“As a result of China’s expanding economy and rising affluence, an increasing number of people can now afford the soup, priced at up to $100 per bowl, and demand has risen dramatically,” reports the non-profit WildAid. “Though shark fin soup represents status in Asian culture, the fin itself adds no flavor, nutritional or medicinal value.” The group adds that the consumption of shark fin poses a serious threat to human health since they contain an extremely high concentration of mercury and other toxins now omnipresent in our oceans.

Besides being inhumane, shark finning is taking a heavy toll on shark populations. According to the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute, upwards of 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone. Another 50 million die annually as “bycatch” when they become entwined in fishing nets targeting other seafood (some fishermen do make use of this bycatch by selling off what fins, cartilage, liver oil and meat they can). As a result of these multiple threats, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a third of all shark species are nearing extinction, with some species declining by more than 80 percent in recent decades.

In October 2011, California became the fourth U.S. state (after Hawaii, Oregon and Washington) to ban shark finning and the importation of shark fins. Also in October, Toronto, Ontario, Canada’s largest shark fin market, became the fourth Canadian city to ban shark fins, joining Brantford, Oakville and Mississauga, all also in Ontario, that had bans in place already. Campaigns are underway in both the U.S. and Canada to ban shark fins and shark finning outright coast-to-coast. Mexico has had such a nationwide ban in place since 2007, although enforcement there has been weak. The European Union banned shark finning in 2003 and recently beefed up significantly its own enforcement.

Concerned consumers can be part of the solution by not eating shark fin soup, and by encouraging restaurants not to offer it. The Animal Welfare Institute regularly updates a list of restaurants in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. that still serve shark fin soup, and encourages consumers to contact them if they encounter a restaurant serving shark fin soup that is not yet on their list—and to stop dining there. Whether or not such personal actions, added to the various bans in place, will make a dent in the international shark fin trade remains to be seen, especially given the delicacy’s increasing popularity and affordability.

CONTACTS: Animal Welfare Institute; WildAid; IUCN.





GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at:


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Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Photos, Videos, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer and Privacy Policy.