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Greg Webb
Greg Webb
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Artificial Sweeteners and Our Diet-Obsessed Culture

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A recent Huffington Post article looks at a recent study where sucralose (we know it as Splenda) was found to affect the body’s response to sugar, a possible causal factor in diabetes. Splenda is sold as a no-calorie alternative to sugar and is advertised heavily as a safe alternative for dieters who want to reduce calorie consumption. The article, Splenda, Sucralose Artificial Sweetener, Could Affect Body’s Insulin Response goes into details about the study, the basics of diabetes and then trends around obesity and weight-loss.

The Splenda story, along with one recently on Aspartame, have made me really think about dieting. I want to use this Splenda study as a jumping off point to talk about our country’s obsession with dieting. Ironically, we continue to struggle with alarming rates of obesity in this country. According to CDC researcher Cynthia L. Ogden, “The rate of obesity has been flat recently in both children and in adults and some studies have come out recently that have found a decrease in obesity or childhood obesity in some cities. Still, a third of U.S. adults are obese and 17% of children are obese”. (Time Magazine 2/13)

One third of all American adults translates to roughly 78 million obese people as of 2010.

We are obsessed with dieting. We consume diet foods at astounding rates, but we are not – statistically – getting thinner. Is it because we eat “lite” foods, drink diet sodas and use artificial sweeteners in larger amounts, having been lulled into thinking we will lose weight that way? We see the words ‘reduced’ calories and give ourselves permission to eat more. And, then we complain when the pounds don’t melt away. (Guilty)

No food manufacturer on the planet is going to tell you the truth—raw vegetables, fresh fruit and whole grains are good for you. Instead they are going to entice you into buying frozen fruit with no-calorie sweeteners and low-cal frozen meals like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice because they have fewer calories. Not necessarily less fat or less cholesterol.

It appears to be a sophisticated marketing gimmick, based on manipulating our fears to shape our buying habits. We take the hook, because we do want to be healthier—as long as it’s not compromising our sweet tea and our afternoon cookie snacking habit. So we buy the artificially sweetened tea and we get the Snackwell reduced cookies in those little individual packages and reward ourselves for making better choices.

The question of whether Splenda contributes to diabetes is certainly important on two levels. One is the concern about our sugar intake and the proliferation of non-sugar alternatives on the market. The other larger concern is America’s reluctance, both from the corporate and the individual level, to address health issues that stem from obesity. It drives up health care costs, endangers the health of our children, creates issues in the workplace and on and on. Obesity is an alarming health trend and it’s a great focal point for advertisers and marketers – they are making millions off of our obsession with fat.

Here’s an excerpt from MarketResearch.com, to give you an idea of the marketing possibilities that exist in the diet food industry: “Leading diet and weight loss plans have boosted their success and market presence with enormous commercial enterprises that include retail establishments, websites, and book and software products, along with branded diet food products. The food products available from such leading weight loss plans include food bars, drink mixes, breakfast cereals, shelf-stable or frozen lunch or dinner ready meals, as well as nutrition, calorie, and portion-control snack and dessert products of all types. Diet food products may be further tagged with claims such as “light” or “lean,” as well as more specific descriptors such as “low-fat” or “fat-free” (as with milk or cottage cheese), “low-sugar” or “sugar-free” (as with diet sodas or chewing gum), or both low-fat and low-sugar (as with yogurt products). For consumers interested in diet foods and beverages, the notion of convenience is key. In addition to portable and quick-serve products, convenience means a wider range of diet food and beverage options more widely available at retail...”

As is so often the case, the answer is incredibly simple. So simple that it’s hard to understand why we cannot get a grip on this. Eat less food, eat less processed, salted, sugared and fatty foods. Eat vegetables and fruit and lean meats. And exercise. Period. That’s all there is to it. We don’t need a pill. We don’t need ‘lite’ foods or artificial sweeteners. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense. We need self-control, a commitment to exercise, and the desire to live a healthier fitter life. What we don’t need is a powerful diet food industry pushing their products as a quick-fix solution. But we are a quick-fix, immediate gratification society, and yours truly is no exception. But, at the end of the day, to lose weight and keep it off, it simply takes self-discipline to adhere to the basic rule to burn more calories than you take in.