5.09.2017

Revisited: The undeniable facts about the safety of Diet Coke.

On June 5, 2013, I published a blog post to my then WordPress blog about Diet Coke. It was sort of about Diet Coke, but more about the food police. The post sat there with a few comments from my regulars until the July 4th weekend, when it exploded and went viral and got about a half million or more hits.

I could talk a lot about being on the receiving end of virality (it's not so great), and maybe someday I will, but in general the responses I received (in the comments section of the post and via social media) tended to break out like this:

  • 65% "Thank you thank you, I get so tired of the food police."
  • 25% "I can't believe how ignorant you are, let me school you in all of the unhealthy things you shouldn't be consuming."
  • 5% "You must work for Coca Cola."
  • 3% "Ha ha you're an idiot."
  • 2% "Check out my sex toys website" (for reals) or some variant of "I have a great business opportunity that you can make hundreds of thousands a year"

I got about 500 comments on the blog before I turned the comments off. I got nearly 1000 new followers on Twitter (I went and removed them back down to a more manageable 100 or so). I got requests from radio stations on the east coast to take part in their talk show because the post was getting so much buzz and they thought it was a hot topic. I didn't respond. But I kid you not, I still get emails from people telling me how much they loved my Diet Coke post and wondering where they could go back and read it.

The post disappeared (and all its stats) when I pulled down my website a few years back. Let me reassure you that the frustration that prompted it still periodically raises its head, but for the most part I'd forgotten about it. A couple of incidents in recent weeks, both in person and online, prompted a conversation with a friend about how people now seem to not only feel no shame in approaching people and correcting them about food and nutritional beliefs, but almost feel it is their duty. After four years, the culture has become more insistent on policing the behavior of others, not less.

"You should run that Diet Coke post on your blog again," my friend said, shaking his head after I told him about the most recent such incident I'd seen.

"I don't know. It seems to really set people off."

"You should run it."

"People are religious about their health and food and lifestyle beliefs," I said.

"I think you should publish it again."

So here it is. I'd probably have written it differently now, maybe with a little less edge and sarcasm. Maybe I'll revisit some of the ideas later, because I do think they are important.

----

I sat down at the table with friends, enjoying our get-together at the diner. The waitress took my order for a Diet Coke. She left. A friend spoke up.

“They say that Diet Coke increases your chance of getting diabetes by a factor of seven.”

“I heard people were getting seizures from the aspartame in it.”

“Today the news said a lady died after drinking 10 liters of Coke.”

“That’s nice. Enjoy your glass of city water filled with chemicals like fluoride,” I replied.

Are you kidding me?

Not much for alcohol. Never smoked. Don’t do drugs, and barely take aspirin. I exercise at the gym three times a week. I walk to work briskly every day, which comes to around 3/4 of a mile daily. When I get home, I try to avoid sitting and work at a standing desk. I go for walks when weather allows. I don’t eat much red meat at all, mainly poultry if any. I drink plenty of water, and often it is in the form of green, white, or herbal teas. I don’t drink coffee. In other words, I’m not health-obsessed, but I do alright.

My two vices?

An occasional Diet Coke as a treat a couple of times a week (and not even full cans!) and chocolate.

There are two important facts about life:

  1. I am going to die.
  2. You are going to die.

Let’s just be honest: people who point out the inadequacies in my eating and health regimen are merely quibbling over the bet they’re placing that I’ll die first. You’re telling me I’m killing myself and it’s my fault. You almost hint that I can take the blame for any physical ailment coming my way. I propose that cellular degeneration and the natural order of things might get some blame, and not just that Snickers I ate yesterday.

Snow White’s poisoned apple is a metaphor for supermarkets.


“Oh, but it’s a quality of life thing.”

The fact that I’m not fixating on the perfect purity of my food and not doing it to those around me means I have a pretty good quality of life.

When I eat a burger, I am thankful I have food, and that I don’t have to go out and gut the cow myself.

As I’m standing in the grocery store, I think of some of the poorest people in Nicaragua I’ve seen living and scrounging for food near the garbage dump. I get a bit upset at the arrogance that says the strawberries or apples or oranges stacked in heaping piles before me are “not good enough” because they are not organic.

I am repulsed by the idolatry that my body is so precious that I must find something more healthy and pure, that these non-organic fruits lack enough nutritional value for the little god that is me.

How does it work, that having a bountiful supply of food before me is seen as the enemy instead of a blessing?

Do I think I’m better than those people in poverty, so I deserve optimal “natural” food? Or, do I think that everyone deserves it, but because not everyone is in a place to access it, rice and corn mash are good enough for their kids but definitely not mine? When you donate food to the food pantry, do you donate the expensive organic carefully-sourced food that you insist is the only acceptable thing to put in your body and that you feed yourself and your family, or do you get the cheapest canned and boxed food at the store?

If your diet requires it, great. If you prefer it, fine. If you think it’s the only way to go, have at it. But don’t lecture me especially while we’re in the process of eating. I shouldn’t have to defend my digestive history.

The fear industry is the strongest industry at work today.


Out of the fear industry, many things have developed. Like being afraid of our food.

It ends up being an us-against-them battle waged against supermarkets, farmers, and anyone not making that gross runny organic yogurt that makes me throw up in my mouth (true story). It says the hell with “everything in moderation.” It implies that moms who let their kids eat Lucky Charms are basically evil beings inserting a Pixie Stix IV in their arm and laughing maniacally.

It creates Perfect Parent Food Guardian whose kids must not have a drop of corn syrup in their body, ever, until they’re 18. No hint of chemical or artificial anything must touch their lips. The child will glow with good health and surely be a better citizen and thinker because no malnourished human in the history of mankind has ever achieved greatness.

Go ahead. Create a different kind of eating disorder which associates food with fear and danger, and disease solely with choices people make so when someone gets sick you can gently suggest they deserved it because they’d eaten Oreos that one time four years ago.

The jogger still dies young of the heart attack. The vegetarian still gets cancer. The butter-eater and wine-drinker and cigar-smoker lives to be 98. You can’t predict.

Typhus wasn’t much fun.


We had a discussion about a similar topic at work, while on break, and a coworker came up with probably the best summation I could say in response to those who are hardcore anti-any kind of modern food, anti-vaccine, back-to-the-pioneer-times ideology: Typhus wasn’t fun.

Here’s a list of other things that aren’t fun:


  • Diptheria
  • Whooping Cough
  • Polio
  • Measles
  • Tetanus
  • Malaria
  • Scurvy
  • E. coli and other gut ripping illnesses
  • Hand-washing clothes and hanging them on the line even in the dead of winter
  • Living on the northern plains without fruits like oranges and bananas (among other delicious foods) technically not being in the “locally sourced” category
  • Living in the "goiter belt" before salt was iodized.
  • Killing a buffalo and using its guts for string, making pemmican, and creating a house out of its hide
  • Starvation
  • Trichinosis
  • Using ice-boxes instead of modern chemical-supported refrigeration
  • Non-electric sewing machines for all of your clothing needs
  • Butcher a pig, cure the meat, make your own lard
  • Chinking your cabin walls with animal dung and mud, and twisting prairie grass for heat because hey, let’s be honest, your home has a lot of toxicity built into it.


It’s easy to decry technology and its evils from your comfortable and healthy perch in the midst of it.

FYI: Honeybees were introduced to North America by Europeans, and tomatoes introduced to Europe by explorers. Do you really wish the Italians hadn’t gotten their hands on tomatoes? I love marinara. I love honey. I’m glad food hasn’t remained locally sourced only. I live on the Northern plains. I would sure miss citrus fruits if I was only allowed to eat the food that grows here naturally.

I don’t know if you’ve ever bothered to talk to someone who’s really old and had to do some of that live-off-the-land stuff, but you ask them if they want to go back to doing things by hand and they, like my grandma told me once when I asked if she missed the “good old days”, are probably going to come out in favor of automatic dishwashers, cake mixes, and Crisco. It wasn’t an alt-lifestyle option, but the only option, and given the chance at modernity, they leapt for it.

It’s called progress, because it is.

Yes, we have some diseases that are a result of the excess of our modern diet low exercise levels — that’s not the argument I’m making here — but the lack of progress had its own diseases and they were really ugly, too, with shortened lifespans overall.

Is it possible that I might make small choices and choose some chemical-free home products and eat more vegetables and try to buy locally and avoid GMO here and there when viable and still dig into a bowl of mac and cheese or douse the bathroom with Febreze when times call for it? That I might enjoy making my own bread but once in awhile, buy a loaf from the store or order a pizza? That having a Diet Coke once in awhile when I go out is a treat? Or is this just an all-or-nothing proposition? It seems that every moment is a lecture moment for the food and health police, whose forgiveness and grace policies are non-existent.

What goes in your head?


Maybe people ought to be more concerned about what they’re allowing in their head, rather than just their mouth. Shall I get after you for what you do and don’t read? Shall I lecture you on the shallow life of pursuing bodily health and not a robust mental existence?

Turn the TV off, unplug the internet, and shut out the voices convincing you that a world of unimaginable plenty isn’t good enough, isn’t healthy enough. Eat the food you have in moderation. The quality of my life, and my health, is fine. Someday it might not be. The same is true for you. Whether I drop over dead tomorrow or live to be 104, I’m not going to enjoy it any more by skipping the Diet Coke or excessive chocolate consumption. Keep your own guilt.

If I’m not in need of a drug-abuse intervention or confined to my bed because I weigh 900 pounds, it’s not necessary to say something about what I should or should not be eating, unless I ask you. Just about anyone eating overtly unhealthily isn’t doing so from a lack of knowledge, but other reasons. You’re not helping with those other reasons, I promise you. You might even be making them very much worse.

Enjoy the food you enjoy. Don’t enforce that on anyone else but yourself, especially when you’re sitting down to eat with them.

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