Sunday, August 06, 2006

Phenylketonurics Unite!

Usually, I’m not the last one left at the dinner table, sitting there all by my lonesome still working on my food, as I was raised in an eat-or-be-eaten (but loving) environment, where the term “Eat faster next time” was used when the last pork chop was speared and our disappointed famished pangs of hunger were abated by the follow-up phrase, “Dem’s the brakes.” Therefore, consciously or not, I’ve learned to eat quickly and eat everything, but several factors tonight led to my solitude at the dinner table, where everyone else had scarffed down their meal and headed off to other adventures (namely, toenail painting): 1) I barbequed the chicken while Kara cooked rice and broccoli/cauliflower so I didn't get a headstart eating as things came off the stove; 2) Natalie spilled her milk and I was closest to the spill, therefore parentally responsible to help her clean it up; and 3) I had inadvertently let in a housefly, and since there is no love lost between our species, I started eating later because I first needed to hunt down and kill the invader (he eluded capture in the end).

Left to clean up, Kara reminded me to wrap up the leftover bowl of broccoli/cauliflower, and since I hate leftovers, I discovered that it was just easier to eat the broccoli and cauliflower (known in this house as little trees and little snowy trees) than it would be to wrap it up… we’re out of cellophane to start with, and I’m sick of venturing into the back of the refrigerator fortnightly in search of old food rotting a most horrible death. Given that, I’ll dump leftovers as soon as they are labeled such. Or, in this case, eat them.

While I’m chewing on a seemingly endless pile of little trees I begin to read the Diet Pepsi Vanilla bottle that it sitting empty on the table in front of me, for the lack of anything better to read, and what do I discover but a secret message cryptically written on the back of the bottle, a warning addressed to a small group of people known as the Phenylketonurics, a chemically imbalanced collection of people whose consumption of this liquid could mean the demise of their very existence. Given the massive amounts of diet soda I drink on a weekly basis (my name is listed prominently in the “thank you” directories at both the Coca-Cola and PepsiCo headquarters), you think I would have noticed this message before.

After all: it seems dire

At the bottom of a long list of impossible-to-pronounce chemicals and ingredients and following an invitation to visit the Pepsi website, is the sly message to all of the Phenylketonurics walking among us. In dark and gloomy blood red, it states: “Contains Phenylalanine.”

What is that and why is it so important to this epicurean ragtag group of rebels who desperately need to know this small but very significant piece of information?

Let’s find out.

As it turns out, the folks on the working end of this message have been heeding warnings like this their entire lives, because once you’ve joined the Phenylketonurics, like the Jets or the Sharks, you’re a Pheny for life (it’s a blood initiation in the form of a heel stick at birth, one of a barrage of tests done moments after emerging). Simply put, these people can’t enjoy the splendid wonders offered by the artificial sweetener aspartame.

Otherwise known as PKU, people afflicted with Phenylketonuria cannot consume any product that contains aspartame, but only 1 out of 15,000 babies are born with this genetic disorder inherited from both parents. Phenys have a deficiency of an enzyme which is necessary for the proper metabolism of the amino acid called Phenylalanine (i.e., the component in diet soda and the subject of the warning), one of eight essential amino acids found in nearly all foods which contain protein: meat (of all kinds), dairy products, nuts, beans, tofu... the list goes on and on. Especially, phenylalanine is found in aspartame, the sweetener found in most diet soft drinks and sugar-free candy on the market today (including some children's medicine).

Those that are stricken with PKU must follow a stringent “low protein” diet to avoid all food sources that have high phenylalanine content. To get adequate amounts of other amino acids found in protein (without the destructive phenylalanine), people with PKU also have to take a special medicine in the form of a liquid beverage. So, it sucks to be a Pheny, nutritionally speaking, of course.

So, what happens to people that have it and they don’t bother treating it? Those afflicted with PKU who do not follow a strict low protein diet, the phenylalanine is not adequately digested in their bodies and it builds up in their blood in the form of an acid called phenylpyruvic acid. High levels of phenylpyruvic acid damage the brain and cause an array of side effects: mental retardation, the loss of pigmentation in the skin/hair/eyes, a odd musky odor, muscle aches and pains and, in extreme cases, seizures. Depending on the severity of the PKU, babies who were not treated for the disorder and put on the special diet at birth run the risk of suffering irreversible mental retardation within the first year of life. Very sad and serious.

Right about now, you might be enjoying a fizzy beverage supplied from one of a number of quality soda companies operating in this country, and as you read this, perhaps your eyes are growing wide and your heart is racing, wondering that if every sip of your soda is leading you down the path to irreversible mental retardation and permanent life-threatening illness… you’re asking yourself: Do I have PKU? Well, if you’ve reached an age where you have the desire to drink diet soda and you still have the mental capacity to question whether or not you have PKU, the odds are that you don't.

Ye be warned: The synthesized chemical called aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is used in many kinds of diet soda and other candies. It can cause a wide range of side effects and is considered to be very unsafe by many people. Some people complain that they get headaches, cramps, severe vomiting, seizures, etc., after ingesting large amounts of aspartame.

Interesting fun fact for those that drink warm diet soda. When aspartame is heated (for example, when you put it in the microwave), it breaks down into a chemical that is comparable to wood alcohol, aka methanol. Once in the small intestines, methanol is converted to formaldehyde (yes, the embalming fluid) and formic acid (used in ant poisons) that attack your central nervous system, your DNA and every organ in your body. Some say it leads to cancer, while others say it doesn’t. Isn’t nutrition great!?!

“And all I wanted was a Pepsi…” —Black Flag

Later: After nearly an hour of hunting and several near strikes from a rolled magazine, I finally killed the fly and a friend of his. Too bad I can't hang their little bodies by the back door as a warning to all their fellow cohorts in the vicinity: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."


Tris said...

Nitpicker's correction: "All I wanted was a Pepsi" is a quote from the song "Institutionalized" by the band Suicidal Tendencies.

Ryan said...

Of course! What a foolish mistake! It's all coming back to me now, but since that genre of music doesn't currently hold a place in my library, forgive me for my fuzzy memory. However, back in the day, the tape... yes, tape... on which "Institutionalized" was recorded had Black Flag on the reverse, so you can see how I got confused. After all, the speed metal punk anarcist music of the era is all the same crap anyway.


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