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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
School Researchers Link Diet Soda and Salt to Cardiovascular
EarthTalk: What is shark finning and why have
several U.S. states outlawed it?
—Betsy Englund, Tampa, FL
practice of shark finning to make shark fin soup,
a delicacy mostly in Asian cultures, has taken a
serious toll on shark populations worldwide.
© Nicholas Wang, courtesy Flickr
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.
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.
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.
Welfare Institute; WildAid;
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