Here is the list of ingredients in the snack I just consumed:
My knowledge of chemistry is pitiful, so most of these compounds are lost on me. Leucine? Tyrosine? Arginine? If I hadn’t read these off of a food label I’d be inclined to think that they were paleontological eras, or perhaps characters on Game of Thrones. That said, the fact that sugar is the second ingredient cannot be a good thing. Also, the super long list of ingredients just reeks of “I was created in a lab by a bunch of douchebag scientists who think they can do better than Mother Nature at making tasty things.” And how is E515 an ingredient? These assholes are able to fabricate new chemicals whole cloth but can’t be bothered to name them?
If you are already judging me for my choice of snack, you may want to sit down for this next bombshell. I also enjoy a diet soda now and then. Not any diet cola, mind you – I won’t abide a Diet Rite or Diet RC with their strong Tungsten notes. No, I stick with Coke Zero or Diet Coke because the people who originally gave us soda with a pinch of cocaine in it surely know a thing or two about appeasing our pleasure centers.
There are days when I’m more comfortable with this fact about myself. Days when I think, of all the things to be addicted to, surely diet soda isn’t so bad.
Other days though, I feel completely and utterly ashamed.
“You know, drinking soda is the new smoking,” a good friend once informed me. “Oh Really?” I wanted to say. “I must have missed the Surgeon General’s press conference. It’s probably because I was too busy injecting caramel coloring directly into my veins.” Instead I just nodded along as you do when someone starts telling you about how much you need Jesus in your life.
Others have also offered their condolences on my occasional choice of beverage. Over the last few years I’ve been reassured that diet soda causes both brain tumors and diabetes. And lest I forget, I have several friends always at the ready to remind me that Aspartame is a Monsanto product – Monsanto, you know, the company that would sell Agent Orange Flakes to your kids if the FDA would only give them approval?
I know my friends share these indubitable facts out of love, but I feel shamed nonetheless. And, admittedly, a bit irritated.
Of course I agree that diet soda is problematic. But, well, how problematic? Because, I have no shortage of problems. So really, I need more than their hot take on this issue. I need them to be a little more, how shall I put this, rational.
Every day the list of “all the things that are going to kill you” grows – as evidenced by my CNN, BBC, Facebook, and Twitter newsfeeds. And it’s not just the stuff we eat or drink, but also the chemically-treated lawns we walk on and the BPA coated receipts we take home from the store and maybe allow our two-year old to explore with his mouth.
It feels as though part of our society, at least the part that can afford to, has taken on the role of American Pharisee – convinced that life must be lived against a gentrified set of dietary and environmental restrictions. In our uber-progressive (and Uber accessible) cul-de-sacs, we size up our neighbors not with respect to their paychecks, but with respect to how purely they live. Surely no natural fertilizer could make their lawn that green? Did she just offer me white sugar with my coffee?!
I get it. We all want to be healthy, and we want the same for friends and family. There’s no arguing that humans have brewed up quite the toxic environment for themselves. I, myself, once spent a whole month on a mission to convince friends and family that sugar was akin to a socially sanctioned form of meth. And yet it seems to me that we cope with the never-ending volley of new health-related concerns in one of two extreme ways: we either become completely indifferent to it all, or we double-down on a few self-selected issues and draw our Us vs. Them boundaries accordingly.
As an example, consider our not entirely rational fear of all things “unnatural.” When someone says that such-and-such is unnatural, I can only wonder where they think the food scientists got their chemicals, if not from nature. An alternative universe perhaps? And, sure, I know what they mean – that Mother Nature herself didn’t make it with her benevolent guiding hand. Humans made it. In a lab. Like they made Frankenstein and Gregor Clegane.
But labs also brought us penicillin and antiviral drugs. And Mother Nature, for all her wonders, has bestowed on us the likes of Ebola, AIDS, and those giant cockroaches that people in the South refer to as “Palmetto bugs” as if that somehow makes them less horrifying.
We also suffer from a recency bias. We obsess over the latest viral article whose every hyperbolic word rests on a maybe-sort-of-if-you-squint-a-bit correlation between X and cancer, and we lose sight of the well-established dangers we’ve known about for decades. Look, I don’t know if those pajamas laced with fire retardant chemicals will give your kid cancer, so by all means opt for the more expensive and adorable organic cotton ones that say locally grown. But also, check the radon levels in your basement, because we do know radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.
So, let’s take it back to the top for a moment because I have a confession to make. That snack I ate earlier, the one with a gazillion ingredients that had you wondering “did this dude just crush a Twinkie dipped in lawn fertilizer?” Well, that was actually a banana. That long list of ingredients was provided by Mother Nature, not Nabisco.
Can we all agree that many health-related issues are complex, and we often don’t really know as much as we think we do? I mean, who knew that “ethene gas” was a reasonable thing to add to a banana?
Of course this lack of understanding isn’t an excuse to do nothing. I know that Cheez-It Party Mix isn’t good for me. But the problem isn’t so much where it was made (in a lab vs grown on a tree) as why it was made – namely, to create an addictive customer who will throw his family under a bus to get one more fix of that oh-so-garlicky goodness.
Look, I want my friends to feel free to share with me what they know about the effects of artificial sweeteners on our metabolisms. I just want them to do so with a little humility, compassion, and some peer-reviewed evidence. And for my part, I’ll refrain from wondering out loud if that tan is going to be the end of them.