Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Diet Cola

I have always loved diet cola. From the tall, cold, thin glass bottles of childhood, it was a special treat at times of leisure. Going to summer camps during the high school years, I noted that college dormitory cafeterias routinely feature a soft drink fountain; it was my first inkling of the incredible license of grown up life in which, to an amazing extent, you can have as much as you want of almost anything.

My relationship with diet cola only reached its full flower, however, when I worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store for two years during college. The only perk of that job was full access to the soda fountain, and you can imagine that the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift involved a lot of caffeine use. Complicating things, the store was across the street from our squalid little apartment, so I was for better or worse able to caffeinate myself through the rest of my waking hours as well. When I finally quit that job, the withdrawal headaches went all the way down to my calves.

Here's how caffeine works: the individual caffeine molecules move easily through the blood-brain barrier, and within the brain they tamper with the system that regulates fatigue. When you burn energy, one of the waste chemicals from the expended ATP (our basic biofuel) stimulates inhibiting chemicals in the brain. This makes sense -- you burn energy, and then you get sleepy. What caffeine does is elbow its way into the neural receptors that detect this chemical. This means that neurons never get the message that fuel is being burned, the inhibiting chemicals never get secreted, and you don't get sleepy. It's a marvelous feeling, as you know.

The problem with this, as with most psychoactive chemicals, is that once the caffeine goes away -- it has a half-life in the body of around four hours -- you miss it. The neural receptors go back to pumping out the inhibiting chemicals, except they pump out more than they did before, and you are more sensitive to them now. And, if you have become a habitual caffeine user, it will take around seven to ten days for your body to return to its natural equilibrium. Seven to ten days in which you will be painfully conscious of the lack of caffeine in your blood.

In 1994, I stopped drinking caffeine in response to a medical crisis, and was fanatically free of the stuff for the next seven years. Returning to office work, however -- and then, having that office move to a new building next door to a convenience store -- has completely undone me. I have long since fully returned to the diet cola fold.

When I talk about this subject with people, they will often want to know whether I am more of a "Diet Coke Man" or a "Diet Pepsi Man." This question represents the triumph of marketing, for there is really no meaningful distinction of taste between the two or any of their smaller competitors. I hold this truth to be self-evident. If you take the proverbial "Pepsi Challenge" and emerge with a decided preference, even a maven like myself can tell you that you are paying far too much attention to your cola beverage.

I never touch the regular, non-diet stuff, by the way. Despite that I have a real sweet tooth in solid foods, the sugar content in a regular soft drink hits me like a bomb, making me lethargic and feeling swollen up tightly within my skin. I figured this out when I was 14 or so, and have avoided the stuff since.

At this point, perhaps we should discuss the question of scale. I drink more cola than the typical person. People often see me with one of my cola cups and ask "do you drink one of those every day?" Well, no. I drink two of those every day. At least. And the cups are 44 ounces in size, meaning that I am drinking the equivalent of a six-pack and a half of those old glass bottles, every day.

Now to a certain extent, this is just no big deal. Cola is mostly water, and the common-knowledge idea that this water somehow "doesn't count" is risible; even the medical establishment has finally been admitting in the last few years that water is pretty much water. Nor is the acid in cola capable of eroding coins (I have experimented extensively with this, thank you); nor would this matter much since it is destined in any event for the acid pit of the stomach. And, although there are some lingering questions about aspartame, I have reviewed the literature on this inert, supersweet protein and come away with no more reservations about putting it in my body than I have about, say, cheese (something else I arguably consume too much of).

On the other hand, drinking this much cola can't help. Can it? And, two bucks a day does become hundreds of bucks over a year, even if I usually buy cola with my pocket change to hide the expense from myself. (I remind myself, too, how much cheaper it is than a coffee habit!) And, there's something uncomfortable about the feeling of need, the feeling that I will be highly aware of it if I choose NOT to have a cola.

Could I make it the seven to ten days required to lick a caffeine habit? Sure I could. It would be uncomfortable, but I could do it. In fact, I have on a few occasions, most recently last year. I went around with my 44 ounce cups full of pure tap water for around a month. And then I backslid. Why I backslid is an interesting question. It might have to do with my constant attempt to squeeze as much time awake as possible out of every day, of course. It might have to do with the pleasant commercial aspect of the habit, the mind-clearing, routine-interrupting, social ritual of walking to the soda fountain where I will, often as not, be greeted cordially by a familiar face behind the cash register. Or, it might have to do with one of those open questions about aspartame: does it have a mild addictive quality of its own, with a longer duration of withdrawal than caffeine?

Addiction is generally thought to be bad, and there is certain obvious logic to having as few strings attached to your person as possible. As addictions go, though, you could make a case that caffeine is a rather innocuous one, easily beating out major competitors such as alcohol, meth, heroin, tobacco, religious hysteria, and sex with strangers. And I often recall the question a buddy asked me a few years ago: "Do you still enjoy drinking it?" My unhesitating answer was clearly not the one he was expecting: "Absolutely. It’s delicious and refreshing, every time."

So, those are the thoughts that knock around in my head about my beloved, but not beloved, diet cola. And they provoke the obvious questions:

1. Should I quit?

2. Why?

3. If so, how should I quit?


Rebel said...

1 No... not unless you really want to.

2. see #1

3. The times I've quite/reduced my soda intake I've done it by means of replacement - iced tea works ok for me. The thing is, as often as I've tried to quit Dr. Pepper - I've always gone back to it. So you know...

The Calico Cat said...

1. Yes

2. Because I did

3. Cold Turkey - just like I did.

I have been on pure tap water since our first heat wave & haven't looked back. I hope to keep up this habit once it gets cooler (& I want hot tea - not hot water) & once I have the baby. My pocket book is definately more happy.

BTW I did not have super bad headaches... The ones I did have were quyelled by a tylenol or two.

d said...

i really don't understand all of the bad press that caffeine gets. it's relatively harmless all things considered.

of course, i have two cups of coffee in the morning followed by about 6 coke zeros throughout the day. and, yes, i agree with you, it's crisp and refreshing every. single. time.

so, i say, don't quit. i mean, why go through the trauma? the rewards don't outweigh the risks.

jovaliquilts said...

I drink lots of Diet Coke. I have quit (before getting pregnant for example) and at other times scaled back, but so far I've always returned to drinking a good bit.

Caffeine has pros and cons -- it's not clear cut. Like most things in life, it's complicated. And people respond differently. There's even a small group of people for whom it acts as a mild sedative. Diet Coke has never kept me awake, but I must get some kind of buzz because I like one in the morning.

The other issue with diet soda is the artificial sweetener, but I don't want to get into that.

So, quit if you want to, if you feel better without it, if there's a nagging worry that it's bad for your health. If you quit, the recommended way is to ease off gradually to avoid the headaches. I'm more of a cold turkey person myself, since I generally tend toward the extremes in things (try as I might not to). When I had my first soda after not having any for about 8 years (having kids), I thought it tasted terrible, like a bunch of chemicals. But I learned to get around that. :)

Melissa said...

This post sounds like it could have been written by my husband. He's quit and backslid many times and drinks about the same amount that you do. I try to stay out of it, though I would like it if he could drink it in moderation. For me personally a reason to quit would be the dependence on a specific chemical to function. When my husband wakes up on a Saturday morning and HAS to drive to the store or 7-11 first thing because he's out of Diet Coke and can't function without it, that seems like a bad thing. But then, I feel the same way about coffee addiction. Some people are happy with their addictions and some people don't like the idea of being addicted. If you're in the first category, why worry about it?

Oh, and regarding the acid thing. The acid in cola is bad for your teeth. Jason's dental hygenist asked him if he drank a lot of soda because the enamel on his molars was almost completely worn away. She told him to drink it with a straw so that it minimizes the contact with the teeth. If you're always drinking it with a straw anyway that's probably why you haven't experienced ill effects from the acid.

katenben said...

Anything in moderation. Except for, you know, murder or something.

karmasartre said...

Back in the day, the jerk would make a Coca-Cola by pumping essence of coke into the bottom of a milk-shake glass, adding ice, then filling with soda water. If he liked you, the ration of essence to water would increase. He (it was always a he) controlled the intensity of the flavor. The bottled stuff was such a let-down. Haven't tried the cans.

The [Cherry] Ride said...

For as healthy of an eater I sometimes am, I know that I will probably never give up drinking diet soda. I think it will always be my one vice.

I say, don't quit unless you really, really feel like it is somehow impeding on your life or health. If that's the case, then Yes definitely quit. Cold Turkey.

PS - Have you tried either Pepsi One or Coke Zero? That shit is the bomb.

Dug said...

1. Don't quit!

2. Because it's delicious and refreshing every time. Look, if you're going to a vice in life, that's not a bad one to have and let's face it-people without vices are dull as dishwater.

3. 88 ounces is a heck of a lot. You could cut back on the amount. The smaller cup sizes (if they make them anymore) are also delicious and refreshing.

Would have been cool if you took that picture while posting an identical one in the blogger window so you get that trippy infinite picture thing that I love more than Coke itself.

Rebel said...

dug have you seen the infinite cat project?

margaret said...

1. Yes
2. Anything not in moderation = bad. Also, wasn't there some study indicating that diet soda drinkers were more likely to get/stay overweight?
3. Um, pick up smoking?

More seriously, how about copying that delicious, refreshing taste with, say, a soda siphon and our area's famous Bull Run water? That's what I do, and it's so yummy. C'mon over for a taste.

At least diet soda doesn't have high-fructose corn syrup, which I'm come to believe is the evil of the modern age.

Anonymous said...

1. Nope. And yep.
2. Bones. It's not good for your bones. I have two snapped bones to prove it.
3. Just cut back. I drink DC on Saturdays. Another excellent reason to get through Friday.

Karin said...

1. It seems to me that if you're
asking yourself the question in
the first place, then it must
be that you already want to
quit. So quit.

2. Because you want to (if that's
true). And because your body
needs straight water so much

3. I'm a cold turkey fan, but have
the advil ready and a plan to
go for little walks through the
neighborhood when you'd
normally go to the Plaid Pantry.

boo said...

1. and 2. Try quitting again. It seems to be on your mind so why not give it a try? Experiments can be fascinating.

3. Diet caffeine free green tea with ginseng.If you can find it. The ginseng isn't as good a substitute and the tea without that crisp carbonation will take getting used to, but after a bit you will be addicted to that. One flame burns out another's burning.

I like my caffeine these days. But taking breaks with the tea is good too. When I go back the diet soda hits me like a red bull semi.

Chance said...

I think the main issues are the aspartame and the high fructose corn syrup. I'd recommend lowering your intake, at least. But I know how delicious soda is and how nice caffeine is. How to lower it? Um... Add more ice to the cup?

BTW, if you care, M5K, I'm posting again.

Yankee in England said...

Okay so I know I am a late comer to this post but I don't think you should quit unless you want to. If you want to then might I metion in the past I have given up cold turkey for months at a time by using flavored sparking water. It is fizzy which I sometimes wonder if I am more addicted to than the caffine and has a taste unlike plain water. Most of them have no or neglegable amount of calories per serving plus you get the warm fuzzy feeling of drink lots of good water for your body. I must mention that as I sit here and write this comment I am working my way through 500ml(I think this is around 20oz) of Pepsi Max.

While I agree with you that the taste difference of the different brands is quiet small since moving to England I have found the Diet Coke does not taste the same as in the US so I choose Pepsi Max most of the time. I however will buy any diet cola if Pepsi Max is not available.

Michael5000 said...

Zowie! Thanks for your comments everyone. To be honest, to the extent that I thought anybody would read all the way through that loooong post in the first place, I was expecting a very pro-quitting take on things. This is much more mixed. Maybe I'll have to make up my own mind or something.

@Reb: Do they even HAVE Dr. Pepper in Thailand? 'Cause I'm not mailing you a case every week.

@Calico: Hmm, the pocket book argument is a worthy one...

@d: Hmm. I'm fond of caffeine as such, but then I'm also drawn to Boo's point that if you lose less of it, it hits harder.... I only have coffee once a week, and that dose is still a special experience.

@jovali: It's interesting to me that nobody, but nobody, likes the taste of cola WITHOUT carbonation. So it doesn't taste good, but if you put bubbles in it....

@Melissa: I'm a straw man. So to speak. Don't knock me over. On the other hand, now that my gums are starting to recede a little, the straw effect might not be enough for me. My dentist just advised me to rinse with water after a cola.

@katenben: Yes. I'm staunchly anti-murder.

@karma: There you go, talking about "the jerk" again. Who are you talking about, anyway? Dick Cheney?

@[Cherry]: I haven't. But I probably should. Or maybe I shouldn't.

@Dug: Maybe I should cut down on the amount or something.

@Mags: High-fructose corn syrup is the new cruelty.

@Anonymous: Not THE Anonymous??

@Karin: I've become an avid little walk taker! I sure don't buy the "straight water" argument, though, and here's why: water becomes useful to your body as it is extracted out of the small intestine. By which point, even if it was elementally pure when it passed your lips, it is mashed up with a zillion biochemicals and everything you've eaten over the last few meals by the time you are actually using it. The whole system is designed to extract water out of the mud going through your guts. So, pure water, lettuce, diet cola, watermelon, coffee, soup, a (bleh) juicy steak -- functionally, water is going to be water down there where it matters.

@Boo: An appeal to my love of arbitrary experiment is never a bad tactic.

@Chance: There's already LOTS of ice in that cup, for the record.

And -- cool! I'll catch you on my RSS reader.

@Yank: YES! British cola does taste different. So does bottled cola between different areas of the U.S. ('cause water tastes differently from locality to locality). To my tongue, the regional differences in cola taste due to differences in water is considerably more noticable than the difference between the two major brands. But that's just me.

Vida said...

I don’t usually respond to things, but I wanted to respond to this one (even if I am a bit on the late side). As to your question, if you should quit, these are questions only you can answer for yourself, any other person’s opinion is basically irrelevant unless you want it to be relevant. By posing the question either you 1) have already decided to want to quit, or 2) have no intentions of quitting, but are curious as to what other people’s perspective is. When I read this blog, my focus was not on the caffeine content at all, but on the artificial sweeteners. It seems the other comments focus on the caffeine content and not on the artificial sweetener, so here’s my two cents.

My experience with the internet and medical research is that real research is not posted on the internet. If your friend gets cancer, and you have no clue about that type of cancer, you can search and find what it is, treatment, side effects of treatment, etc. But if you want to know results of clinical studies and real scientific research (especially new current research) on that cancer a regular google search in my experience will yield little results. It’s unfortunate that to get access to medical research you have to be associated with a hospital or an institution.

One nursing article I read relating the safety of aspartame indicated that while it has been deemed “safe” the major undertakers of most of the studies have been companies that manufacture artificial sweeteners. My perspective on the FDA is that it walks the line between caving to companies and trying not to let people die. They accept clinical studies that are obviously skewed from pharmaceutical companies and approve things, unless people start to die or have very adverse effects. In addition, many previous studies did not look at aspartame effects over the lifespan of the animal being tested. In 2007, the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center in Italy undertook a comprehensive study of long-term effects of aspartame consumption. This was their second study, to see if the first round of results would again be attained. The results not only confirmed but reinforced the first round of results. They found, for the second time, that acceptable daily intake of aspartame for humans is carcinogenic. Aspartame is a multipotential carcinogenic agent, capable of inducing tumors, lymphomas and leukemias, and cell carcinomas of the renal pelvis and ureter. The study found that the more aspartame intake, the greater the risk. When lifespan exposure begins prenatally, aspartame’s carcinogenic effects are significantly increased. What I had heard (and what the media no doubt has covered) is that aspartame has neurological effects, and as a result increases the risk of brain cancers and multiple sclerosis. Based on studies where those with brain cancers where interviewed and results gathered, this claim has not been substantiated.

You mentioned that the sugar content in a regular soft drink hits you like a bomb, and makes you lethargic and feeling swollen up. Most people feel this way after consuming a drink of cola (or anything with a lot of refined sugar), so they artificially add chemicals so that you don’t feel this way. Regularly, your body would be screaming “ahhh, stop!” and you wouldn’t feel well, so you’d stop. The artificial sweetener tricks your body so its natural responses are inhibited. My perspective is that any modified chemical that you introduce into your body to inhibit its natural response should be taken very seriously.

Should you keep drinking your cola? Who am I to tell you if you should or shouldn’t? I’m certainly not perfect. If it makes you happy and you love doing it, only you can answer whether you want to. If you were a young woman and you said you wanted to spend all day outside playing soccer and did not want to wear sunblock, I wouldn’t tell you that you’re wrong to do it, I would just tell you that in the last 10 years the deadliest form of skin cancer in young woman has seen a 50% increase.

It will be interesting to hear if your perspective has changed based on the responses you’ve received  Also, I know you wave to Joey when you pass by to get your drink and I think she likes that.


Michael5000 said...

@Vida: Now we're talkin'. Thanks for pointing me toward the Italian research. It is more recent than the studies I have seen, and obviously somewhat concerning.

But first: running the FDA would be a thankless job, and that's for sure. It is one of those dual-mandate sorts of organizations, responsible both for a) protecting the population from bad stuff, while b) providing access ASAP to good stuff, all the while c) promoting, or at least not needlessly obstructing, commerce. Not a set of priorities I would want to untangle. Problem is, the people who DO want to untangle those priorites tend to get there through agribusiness or pharma experience. So, they have strong ties to the companies that make, e.g., artificial sweeteners.

But now then. Here's the thing with the Italian study, that the good researchers at Cesare Maltoni CRC are quite up-front about: the problem can't seem to be found outside of the lab. They find a modest increase in cancer in lab rats that they expose at about half of the maximum daily recommended intake -- but that maximum DRI is 50 mg/kg of bodyweight, whereas actual normal consumption is down around 4 mg/kg of bodyweight, so we're actually giving these rats really stout doses.

But here's what other (and I believe non-agribusiness) researchers have been able to find in the human population (and I'm quoting from the Cesare Maltoni people here):

"Subsequent to our findings of hematopoietic cancers in rats, and in light of persistent concerns among the scientific community
of an association between APM and brain cancers, Lim et al. (2006) published the results of a study that assessed the correlation between the consumption of aspartame-containing beverages and the incidence of these types of
cancers. The findings were based on data derived from a prospective study conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the American Association of Retired Persons, using a cohort of > 285,000 men and > 188,000 women between 50 and 71 years of age, who had satisfactorily responded to a selfadministered food frequency questionnaire. The questionnaire included questions on the consumption of beverages (soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened iced tea) potentially containing APM during the previous year. The questionnaires were mailed from 1995 to 1996 and the follow-up lasted until 2000. The
conclusions of the study (Lim et al. 2006) did not support the hypothesis that APM increases
hematopoietic or brain cancer risks.

Recently a group of Italian authors
(Gallus et al. 2007) published the results of an integrated network of case–control studies conducted in Italy between 1991 and 2004
on the potential correlation between artificial sweeteners (including APM) and cancer. The
authors interviewed patients with histologically confirmed cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (598), esophagus (304), colon
(1,225), rectum (728), larynx (460), breast (2,569), ovary (1,031), prostate (1,294), and
kidney (renal cell carcinoma 767). Controls were 7,028 patients (3,301 men and 3,727 women) admitted to the same hospitals for acute, nonneoplastic disorders. Cases and
controls were interviewed during their hospital stay, using a questionnaire on subjects’
usual diet in the 2 years before diagnosis. The results reported a lack of association between
artificial sweeteners and the risk of the aforementioned cancers."

So, the mouse data is concerning, but hardly a slam dunk. But, well done. Based on this new information, I shall attempt to reduce my diet cola consumption from 88 to 44 ounces a day. Starting, say, next Monday. Unless someone else wants to take a shot?

Rebel said...

You really know how to give a girl a panic attack. Fortunately Google knows all:

"Rimping Superstore in Chiang Mai sells Dr. Pepper but it's pricey (50+ baht/can)"

But actually, I did okay in France without it - I just drank a lot of Orangina.

mhwitt said...

When I post, I post late. Guess it's my habit.

I personally wouldn't want to be dependent on the stuff. I recommend cutting back consumption pretty drastically, down to perhaps one or two 12-ounce servings per week tops. If drinking only a little is impossible, then give it up totally.

mrs.5000 said...

Well, I've been staying out of this. I will say that Vida's comment, "any modified chemical that you introduce into your body to inhibit its natural response should be taken very seriously" strikes a chord with me. Perhaps unfairly: I never touch the stuff, myself, because my own body/brain tends to instinctively group soft drinks in the "undrinkable" category (ginger ale is an occasional exception.) So it's pretty natural for me to view the consumption of large quantities with suspicion, fret a bit over its effect on diet, etc.

As far as aspartame's effect on real people, I note in Wiki it's only been approved since 1983, so you and your fellow aficionados have got 25 years of history with it. Are you planning to drink it for another 50? If so, we don't have data on that yet.

At the same time, M5K, I think it's been well established that I have a certain bemused fondness for your diet cola habit. Also that I generally avoid telling you what to do. Your vice is my vice! So I'll be cheerful and supportive of the 44-oz.-a-day experiment.

Tereza said...

Hey, I know this is slightly off topic, but just have to say, though this is probably obvious: careful w/ that soda next to your keyboard! I ruined a perfectly good lap top by spilling nothing more than a sip of coke right on the keyboard. That really sucked!

Michael5000 said...

@Tereza: Now THERE's a point of concern! Listen up, kids! Do like tereza, and michael5000, and always keep a secure lid on your fountain drinks!