Posted by Linda Bonvie
February 26, 2015
For the last three years or so, one of our goals at Food Identity Theft has been to try to alter the dynamics of the food industry by influencing readers to avoid products containing ingredients that have no place in a healthy diet. By pointing out the ways in which additives like high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, partially hydrogenated oils, monosodium glutamate and similar flavor enhancers have contributed to chronic and often life-threatening health problems, we hope to add momentum to a growing consumer movement that will ultimately discourage food companies from using such harmful ingredients.
Still, we’re realistic enough to recognize that bringing about a transition of this sort isn’t something that happens overnight, and to expect considerable resistance from an industry that has billions invested in certain products and processes. So whenever tangible changes do begin to appear in the marketplace in response to consumer pressure, we think it’s also our job to acknowledge them.
One such change that came to our attention recently in the form of a prominent merchandising display for a new soft drink called Coca-Cola Life.
Now this isn’t the sort of product we’d necessarily endorse, or recommend you run out and buy. But it does represent a markedly significant improvement over the products that the company has been mass marketing for the past few decades – particularly its flagship products, regular and Diet Coke.
Because instead of either the disease-and obesity promoting HFCS long used in regular Coke or the neurotoxic artificial sweetener aspartame contained in the Diet variety, this new variation – which boasts having 35 percent fewer calories – is sweetened with old-fashioned cane sugar and stevia leaf extract.
And if that idea should catch on with enough regular soda drinkers – especially teens – it might well prove to have a positive impact on the nation’s increasingly grim health statistics. It could, for example, make a substantial dent in the growing epidemics of diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which scientific studies have linked to the widespread substitution of HFCS for sugar in soda and other products. And it could even help break the diet soda habit that threatens the brain health of young people, and can result in such symptoms as migraines, seizures and vision problems.
Stevia: what happens when industry ‘flips’
What we find especially interesting is another positive change this reflects – the one revolving around stevia. A mere two decades ago, this traditional South American herbal sweetener, long recognized for its health benefits, was all but banned by the Food and Drug Administration, which labeled it an “unsafe food additive” and barred its importation into the U.S. And just why was it considered “unsafe”? Not because of any reported adverse reactions to it, or any meaningful scientific evidence – in fact, extensive testing in Japan had found no cause for concern – but on account of a “trade complaint” the FDA received from an unidentified party that was widely believed to have been the NutraSweet Company, which then held the patent on aspartame (a product the FDA had no problem with, despite the thousands of adverse reaction complaints it received about it).
It wasn’t until industry itself became interested in stevia as an alternative sweetener, in fact, that this official taboo was discarded. Not that the marketing of stevia products has been unproblematic – for example, Cargill’s Truvia has been the subject of both class-action litigation challenging its claim to being natural and some unsettling research about the insecticidal properties of its primary ingredient, erythritol.
We wouldn’t go so far as to call Coca-Cola’s Life a perfect product – it still contains caramel color, a suspected carcinogen, as well as phosphoric acid, which some health experts believe could be linked to osteoporosis and the preservative potassium benzoate. And we can only hope that the stevia used in Coca-Cola Life is the real McCoy.
But, assuming that it is, what we can say is that replacing biologically harmful laboratory sweeteners like HFCS and aspartame with cane sugar (which all sodas once contained, back before the diabetes and obesity epidemics) and stevia is an encouraging development. And that instead of hiring pop star Taylor Swift to sing the praises of aspartame-tainted Diet Coke, a far wiser move might have been to have her introduce her audience to “Life.”
Because where there’s “Life,” there’s hope!