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Rant: When Journalism Jumps the Shark


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 19, 2012.

Holy cow. I just read this article on how diet sodas ruin your body. I’m not here to advocate or dispute that position (at least not today), but rather I’m seriously frustrated by how journalism has turned into sensationalized articles that oversell the facts. Especially when it comes to a topic as important as someone’s health, I think news outlets owe it to us to present things with a level head. Unfortunately, with the need to grab eyeballs just to stay afloat in the online world, journalistic integrity often goes out the window. I guess I’ll take it upon myself to set the record a little straighter for you.

Claim 1: Diet Sodas Cause Kidney Problems

Mandy Oaklander’s first claim is reasonably well-backed. The study she cites followed 3,000 women (a good sample size) and had a control group of sugar-sweetened soda drinkers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t give us any sense of what kidney decline means. People’s kidney function declines as they age; over an 11-year study, it’s important to know what the extent of the change is.

Claim 2: Diet Sodas Mess With Your Metabolism

A 2008 study showed a 34% higher risk of metabolic syndrome in people who drank even one diet soda a day! That’s terrible news! Except in the very next sentence, she admits that whether the link is attributed to an ingredient in the soda or the eating habits is unclear. We don’t even know if the diet soda is the culprit, so why is this in the article?

Claim 3: Diet Soda Leads to Obesity

I recall this one making the news round a while back. Allegedly, the more diet sodas a person drank, the more likely they were overweight. The cause? Artificial sweeteners affect your ability to regulate calorie intake by the sweetness of food, meaning you might overeat. To clarify, if you don’t have self-control and eat too much, you’ll gain weight. Shocker!

Claim 4: Diet Sodas Give You Hangovers

Apparently sugar-free mixers allow liquor to enter your bloodstream faster than those with sugar. This sounds like a great money-saving tip: get the same buzz with less alcohol by using a sugar-free mixer, and save calories to boot! But here’s the real kicker. That hangover the next morning has nothing to do with how fast the alcohol entered your system, but rather how much total alcohol your body had to process. When you get dehydrated and can’t fully break down the alcohol (and its byproducts), you get hung over. Alternate water and alcoholic drinks, and party safely.

Claim 5: Diet Sodas Damage Your Cells

Diet sodas contain some preservatives that regular sodas don’t. I’ll take that at face value, no argument here. But the writer cites a Center for Science in the Public Interest that claims these preservatives cause “hives, asthma, and other allergic conditions.” Cato Institute scholar Walter Olson has said of CSPI that their “longtime shtick is to complain that businesses…rather than our own choices are to blame.”  Meanwhile, the Food Commission in the UK (as the article states) classified these preservatives as mild irritants to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Try not to drink soda through your eyes, folks.

Claim 6: Diet Soda Rots Your Teeth

The basic claim here I actually agree with. This is true of all carbonated beverages; their acidity wears down your enamel. But I do have a gripe with one presentation of the data here. Oaklander notes that soda has a pH of 3.2 and offers battery acid at pH 1 and water at pH 7 as references. Gosh, soda must be pretty similar to battery acid, right? pH is a LOGARITHMIC scale folks! That means battery acid is still over 100 times more acidic than soda. That’s not even in the same ballpark. That’s the difference between a car crash at 10mph and one at 100mph. Come on.

Claim 7: Diet Soda Can Cause Reproductive Issues

Diet soda often comes in cans. These cans are frequently lined with a chemical called BPA. BPA has been linked to a number of health problems, including reproductive problems. This…has nothing to do with diet soda itself. Additionally, these issues are the very reason legislators have been working to ban BPA and manufacturers have begun to phase out BPA from their bottles. Next time you see something labeled “BPA-free,” you’ll know what it means.

Phew. Sorry folks, I know that was a pretty sarcastic post. Don’t expect that out of me frequently. But sometimes things just really get under my skin. I’m very passionate about health care and I think people need to be well-informed to make wise decisions about their health. Capitalizing on fear-mongering for the sake of views is cheap and has no business in reputable venues. Trust me; while I have my fair share of diet sodas, I am no soda apologist. The corporations are big boys and girls, and they can handle criticisms on their own. I only care that people are getting unbiased information instead of sensationalized drivel.


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