Take the bitter with the sweet

KEVIN COWHERD

January 25, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

ALL IN ALL, it is sobering to think how much our lives are entwined with those of laboratory animals.

The low-calorie sugar substitute, which I pour into coffee and sprinkle on breakfast cereal, carries this warning: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals."

Translated from the cloudy government prose, this means (at least to me): "We have lab rats dropping off treadmills after eating this stuff. We have white mice keeling over in their little water troughs. We have hamsters reeling about their cages in the most hideous and agonizing death throes.

"So there's no telling what will happen to humans who use this stuff. You might be OK. On the other hand . . ."

It scares me. There's no sense pretending it doesn't. I ingest saccharin, in all its various forms, by the bucketful. And always, -- in the back of my mind, is the picture of some gleaming stainless-steel lab and a poor little guinea pig, jolted with his 10th straight dose of saccharin and suddenly collapsing in a heap.

Understand, I give them all the credit in the world, these laboratory animals.

Theirs is a miserable, lonely existence, a thankless life and . . . aw, forget all that.

Here's what really bothers me: How come they're allowed to sell this stuff if it makes the lab animals drop (pardon the expression) like flies?

Huh? What is that all about? I have visions of lab technicians in white coats, No. 2 pencils poised eagerly over clipboards, huddling for 10 minutes and then deciding: "Well, yeah, that WAS the 200th consecutive mouse to drop dead in his tracks after being fed saccharin. But what the heck. The stuff's probably OK for humans. Now let's grab a beer."

Here's another disturbing thing about my low-calorie sugar substitute.

In tiny letters on the packet, not far from where the words "saccharin" and "cancer" are helpfully noted, it says: "Sodium Free." As if it were a health food.

Sodium free? SODIUM FREE?! WHO CARES ABOUT SODIUM?! SODIUM IS THE LEAST OF MY WORRIES, JACK!

YOU KNOW WHAT I WORRY ABOUT?! WHY LAB ANIMALS ARE EATING THIS STUFF AND WANDERING OFF TO DIE IN CLUSTERS AS IF IT WERE SOME SORT OF RODENT JONESTOWN OR SOMETHING! THAT'S WHAT I WORRY ABOUT! NOT A FEW FREAKING GRAMS OF SODIUM!

Sorry. It's just that . . .

OK. I know what the medical/scientific community says about saccharin.

The medical/scientific community says: "Yes, you're right -- we do have some lab animals spooning this stuff into their morning ** coffee and doing the death scene from 'Hamlet.' But lots of other lab animals eat it and are so healthy they can drop and give you 50 push-ups.

"Besides, lab animals are tiny. So the amount of saccharin that's mowing them down probably wouldn't have the same effect on a human. Humans would have to eat this stuff by the dump-truckful to manifest the same symptoms."

Yeah. Right. Sounds shaky to me.

Now maybe you're thinking: "What's this guy whining about? If thinks saccharin is bad for him, why doesn't he just stop using it?"

Well, I . . . I'm not sure. The reason I keep using it is . . . well, BECAUSE I'M ADDICTED TO IT, OK?! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR?! FINE!

I'm addicted to the sickeningly sweet and artificial taste. I'm addicted to the syrupy aftertaste. I'm addicted to the fact that one tiny packet of low-cal sugar substitute contains (and I'm quoting from the manufacturer here) "the sweetness of two teaspoons of sugar."

Hooked? You betcha. But where do I go from here? Where do I get help?

There are no rehab programs for me, no Betty Ford-type centers where a guy with a saccharin jones can check in and dry out while rooming next to Liz Taylor. There is no national "War on Saccharin," no catchy slogans ("Just Say No to Rat-killer") to help when I weaken and pour a cup of coffee and reach with trembling hands for the sugar substitute.

But am I bitter? Am I wringing my hands and sobbing "Why me?" as I get sucked deeper and deeper into this addiction?

Of course I am. Who wouldn't be?

All I want is an answer to the question -- Saccharin: carcinogenic import from the netherworld or harmless sweetening agent?

It would sure take a load off my mind.

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