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Earlier this year, my life was devastated. For years my family has made a big deal out of A.G. Barr’s magical Irn-Bru at Christmas times, and it's been a family tradition for the last 20 years to have our fridge glowing orange all the way through to New Year. As you probably know, Barr was forced, among all other soft drinks manufacturers, to submit to a rather restrictive tax in the UK earlier this year—the sugar tax—which obviously presented a pretty uncomfortable decision to these companies, now forced to choose between boosting the price of their products to balance their profits, or redesigning their recipes so that their drinks contain less sugar content and evade the tax entirely.
As I say, the tax meant tragedy for me; the recipe of my beloved Irn-Bru was brutalised when Barr chose the latter option. I knew it was coming, and in all honesty I felt like I’d just been told an old family friend was diagnosed with a terminal disease; the inevitability was inescapable, but I somehow never expected it to actually come to pass. Thus, the day came when I cracked open a deliciously orange 2-liter bottle of fresh liquid sugar, took that unmistakable first swig and felt my heart sink at the realisation that that swig will never be the same again. Woe is me.
The chemical culprit of this story is why Irn-Bru’s new recipe breaks my heart so completely. The significant main ingredient of this new concoction is a substance that sits in the middle of quite a curious debate. Aspartame, an artificial alternative to sugar, is a word you’ll soon encounter a lot if you haven’t already.
Until recently, the only ingredient that differentiated between soft drinks and their diet counterparts was the inclusion of aspartame and acesulfame in place of conventional sweeteners and sugar.
On the face of it, these substances don’t seem so bad—they don’t contribute to sugar intake, they reduce the price of manufacture and retail, and they have preservative qualities. The problem with them, though, is the effect they have on the body.
It looks good on the front of a can when every one of a person’s GDA’s aren’t so much as dented by a diet drink, but to me, that’s really uncomfortable—there’s got to be something in it after all, right?
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a classmate from college; a full-on advocate for diet drinks. This guy swore he wasn’t even capable of drinking a conventional soft drink because any drinks without that “diet” taste just didn’t satisfy, going so far as to say they gave him headaches.
A funny thing to say, I thought, considering I’ve also heard that exact same sentiment from fans of standard soft drinks about diet alternatives. The conversation continued as I pushed him to explain what it is about full-sugar drinks that hit him so hard, to which he had no answer—they just simply didn’t “satisfy”, especially when going prolonged periods of time without a Diet Coke.
The afterthought that really disturbed me was how reminiscent that conversation was of the same discussion with a smoker discussing cigarettes: it bothered him going long without one, anything without the right ingredients didn’t satisfy, and through all this he couldn’t for the life of him explain why. I, however, have a theory.
In the last few months, I’ve taken to reading the ingredients of my drinks before buying them, and the sheer presence of aspartame and acesulfame in the soft drink market is nothing short of extraordinary. Once upon a time, it would be wholly clear to a consumer which drinks would contain diet chemicals and which wouldn’t, but now aspartame and acesulfame seem to be utterly inescapable as I read those same ingredients on the side of a carton of orange juice—freshly squeezed orange juice!
Maybe it’s just me but what, pray tell, is the necessity of a diet chemical in a wholly natural drink squeezed directly from a fruit? How would a drinks manufacturer explain including an artificial sugar replacement in a fruit drink rich in naturally-occurring sugar?
My thoughts? Addiction.
On the outside at least, it seems to me that aspartame and acesulfame react in the body in almost precisely the same way as nicotine in cigarettes: they manipulate the body’s behaviour and force a chemical dependency, changing one’s attitude towards consumption.
My friend in college provided the roots for a pretty compelling conclusion to that end since it really did feel like I was asking a smoker why he doesn’t vape. A lot of medical professionals around the world are going so far as to dictate that aspartame is responsible for cases of adverse food allergies and reactions, turning into some quite harrowing stories of liver failure, heart disease, and even cancer.
Obviously, you can find these same chemicals in tax-affected brands which are in no way marketed as diet counterparts—Lucozade, Fanta, Dr. Pepper, Irn-Bru, Tango, Lilt—but at least these brands can point the finger at the UK’s new laws.
But, when you also find them in drinks like fruit juice and squash, you have to wonder. An effort to reduce the cost of production perhaps, but considering a lot of people don’t see diet drinks as acceptable alternatives to the real deal, it’s surely a step backward.
Even after the sugar tax was implemented, there are drinks now sporting aspartame that already fell below the content threshold before a spontaneous change in recipe. Frankly, it disconcerts me; the government has pushed further regulations that in some cases make diet drinks the only option.
I used to treasure having dinner at Pizza Hut, for example, because I used to manufacture my own custom flavour of Coke at the drinks dispensers; imagine my disappointment when I found a newly installed machine that only offered diet choices. I even approached a member of staff to tell them their dispenser needs restocking, and they had to explain to me that it was now illegal for a restaurant to allow refillable full-sugar soft drinks.
Why would the government do such a thing when they've just levied a tax on it? Wouldn't refillable, taxable drinks be a profitable resource? Maybe it’s a legitimate act of morality to promote a healthy lifestyle, but to me it seems somewhat utopian of the British government to willingly dismantle a potential cash cow for such a malevolent cause.
It’s widely accepted that diet drinks don’t influence weight gain in the same way standard drinks do, considering all the connotations that come with the word “diet”. On the contrary. Much like nicotine, aspartame inhibits the body’s ability to consume and process food, slowing digestion and manufacturing a very questionable slimming effect through gradual malnourishment.
This would explain the elusive “health benefits” supposedly inherent in drinking diet drinks, but it’s a curious notion to expect a soft drink to contribute to a healthy lifestyle, regardless of its content. Whether or not this particular method of weight loss is worth the trouble is of course up to the individual, but personally maintaining an idealistic body weight is never worth any kind of malnourishment.
If I’m honest, my ultimate gripe with diet drinks and their accompanying ingredients is that, aside from the fact they taste bad and give me headaches, they took my Irn-Bru away from me. In actual fact, I’m glad the drinks industry has to face obstacles like the UK’s sugar tax because, in one way or another, it does motivate us to have healthier lifestyles.
Much like cigarettes, the harder they are to get hold of, the less likely we are to consume, but still you have to wonder why soft drinks manufacturers are so readily flocking to aspartame at the drop of a hat, regardless of whether or not it’s necessary.
I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories, but I can't help but wonder, what if there was something wrong with aspartame and acesulfame? A quick Google search of those words will reveal how much effort government websites are putting into telling us how safe they are, but these elusive chemicals are creeping into every one of our diets one way or another at an alarming rate.
How long till every drink on the shop floor has an aspartame content, and how long till we find out what aspartame is really doing to us on the inside?