My parents, bless their leftist souls, never kept any soda in the house. Coca-Cola was a treat for my mother on airplane rides, or for my father as a beverage at a friend’s barbeque, but not once did a two-liter bottle of Coke cross our doorstep. Young Sarah didn’t feel deprived, however, because, with the exception of the occasional Orange Crush, I didn’t much enjoy the taste nor sensation of drinking soda.

Enter the summer after my high school graduation, just weeks before I was to begin my first year at Smith. Volunteering for a week at a camp for emotionally- and mentally-challenged young Vermonters, I readily joined my fellow staffers for an evening nightcap– a frosty can of soda.

While we camp counselors weren’t paid for the week, the powers that be seemed to sympathize with the always-trying behavior we dealt with as staff members, and offered us an evening treat of Coke or Fresca in return.

I was at the time a soda virgin, never having experienced the joys of downing a cold can of artificially-sweetened nirvana. Scanning the back of a can of Diet Coke, I was genuinely surprised to read that the drink contained zero calories. In the midst of a zealous campaign to eliminate calories and sugary foods in particular, I was only too happy to welcome Diet Coke and its noncaloric contemporaries into my life.

Adjusting weeks later to my beautiful but overwhelming new home in Western Massachusetts, I was cheered to see Diet Coke in the college dining halls. The sweet beverage was the perfect endnote to meals that grew increasingly spartan, and drinking several servings of the stuff effectively killed any hunger I might have had.

I soon began to expand my usage of artificial sweeteners, using Equal to sweeten mugs of hot peppermint tea or black coffee. Trolling the supermarket with a fellow eating disordered-friend, we were thrilled to discover a variety of low-carbohydrate hot chocolate with no added sugar. With only 25 calories per serving, we could finally have our dessert and drink it too.

As the weight and my ability to keep myself warm declined, I was rarely to be seen without a mug of Equal-heavy tea or coffee. Cold diet soda was for the dining halls, made warm and cozy by the sheer number of bodies milling about.

In treatment for my compulsive exercising and undereating several months later, diet sodas became more or less verboten. They filled a stomach that desired calories and nutrients, and so proved an obstacle to weight gain. It was not until I had gained the requisite twenty-some pounds that I would, slowly and cautiously, re-introduce noncaloric sodas into my diet.

I have relapsed multiple times in the past three years, but have only recently made the decision to drop diet sodas all together. While some scientific evidence suggests that diet beverages and foods trick the body into craving more sweets, I have not found this to be the case. Rather, my decision to eliminate artificial sweeteners is one borne of a different concern– that for a toxin-free diet and body.

While evidence does vary on the subject of aspartame et al., the overarching conclusion seems to one of inconclusion; there is simply not enough long-term evidence to condone or condemn the use of such sweeteners, and it is this lack of knowledge that frightens me.

To be sure, aspartame and acesulfame K are no thalidomide1, but I am wary, in the tradition of the great Michael Pollan, of treating such “frankenfoods” as if they are no different than a freshly-picked peach or pear.

Wholesomer-than-thou rant aside, I recognize the common need and desire for a noncaloric sugar substitute. For anyone watching their blood sugar, the introduction of sucralose-based Splenda has been a happy boon. For the small minority of folks who cannot consume sugar because of allergies, such faux sweeteners have also been celebrated.

There exist a variety of noncaloric and presumably “safe” sweeteners (Stevia, for example), and it is my intention in a series of posts to come to review such products. I will post such reviews as they come up; that is to say, as I experiment with and taste the various options for a sugar- and risk-free beverage.

To begin with, I’ll review Sun Crystals®, a product that combines stevia and sugar cane to create a “100% natural sweetener that’s deliciously low in calories.” At 5 calories a packet (a packet of sugar has 10 to 20), Sun Crystals do save the consumer a little bit calorie-wise, but what of the taste?

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Unfortunately, I found Sun Crystals to be overly-sweet, which, as any soda drinker knows, just ain’t no fun.

While I felt somewhat reassured that the sicky-sweet crystals contained no artificial ingredients, I would not recommend the product to anyone looking for a sugar-like taste. If you want to try Sun Crystals out, however, head on over to to order your free sample.

Better luck next time, folks!