Mayor Bloomberg would like to prevent New Yorkers on food stamps from trading “stamps” for soda. Under his newly proposed plan, food stamps won’t be an acceptable form of payment for beverages (other than milk and some fruit juices) that contain more than 10 calories per 8 oz serving. By cutting down on soda consumption, the Mayor and his staff have argued, people will consume fewer calories and be healthier. But what’s actually going to happen, in most cases, is that soda drinkers are going to remain soda drinkers–they’ll just swtch to “diet.”
High fructose corn syrup and sugar contribute hundreds of inessential calories to the average American body each day. And many of these come in the form of sodas that have, year by year, been getting bigger, cheaper, and more smartly advertised as instant pleasure delivery systems. This is not good for us, and we should cut our consumption.
But diverting those who currently drink large quantities sugared sodas to artificially sweetened ones is not a good solution. Even the most compelling argument—that diet sodas have few or no calories and so therefore will help people lose weight over regular sodas—can be refuted. Current research emerging on artificial sweeteners suggests (counter-intuitively) that for many users they actually lead to weight gain. And while sugar and corn syrup are sweet, the artificial sweeteners on the market today are sweeter–200 to 600 times so, per part. So, while they don’t contribute calories, they may encourage our desire for ever-sweeter foods (most of them food-stamp eligible). And one merely has to google artificial sweeteners to find a litany of consumer complaints that they have caused a host of ailments–claims that while largely unsupported by science ought to give us pause.
While we can, and do, consume too much of it, sugar does at least provide caloric energy. Artificial sweetener, on the other hand, has nothing our bodies can use. That’s been, in fact, its selling point: we can have the pleasure of consumption without consequence. This promise has been very good for the pharmaceutical companies that make sweeteners, the food and beverage companies that put it in our food and drinks and the marketers that have helped nearly 200 million of us Americans become regular consumers. Yet one is hard pressed to find evidence that it has made us healthier.
Unless the loophole is closed, many food stamp recipients will simply switch from Coke regular to Coke Zero. When that happens, artificial sweetener and soda makers will lose little. They may even sell more once their products are state-sanctioned good-for-you options.
If we are going to legislate nutrition—and I’m not sure we should—let’s at least make sure we don’t create new problems out of the ones we face right now. Diet soda is not a healthy choice.