Watching Food Detectives’ good-natured science professor, Alice Roberts, explore the theory that artificially sweetened soft drinks promote hunger, and therefore weight gain, was hard given the years I’d spent drinking the stuff on a near-daily basis. To be honest, I was feeling some remorse.
But before I became wise to the arguable health risks, I actually believed that these diet soft drinks were perfectly fine to consume. I had completely bought in to the marketing hype of “zero sugar”, a genius campaign as persuasive as that of the low-fat movement.
Some years ago, when I had a short-term stab at a diet program, the one saving grace was the promise of its creator: “Drink all the diet soft drink you like! Go nuts! It’s not harmful at all!” That stayed with me for some time. Surely if this fit bloke with the ebullience of a morning show advertorial salesman was telling me to feel free to guzzle the stuff, it was all good?
For a long time I lived in ignorant bliss as I got my sugar hit without the calories. But the more I research the potential harm of these drinks, the happier I am to have kicked the habit.
They may increase your appetite and put on weight
Big Soft Drink would like you to believe that their diet lines are more likely to promote weight loss, or at least weight maintenance. One study actually suggested diet soft drinks are just as good for you as water. Water! It was carried out by an industry-backed research body. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are two of the most prominent members.
They’ve got good reason to make the argument - companies like Coca-Cola also produce bottled water, and as consumers become more health conscious and more diet lines are introduced, they’re hoping they can increase the share of Artificially Sweetened Beverages (ASBs) which currently sits at 25% of the global soft drink market.
But a recent study by Imperial College London found there’s “no solid evidence” that ASBs are any more effective in weight loss than full sugar varieties. In fact, artificial sweeteners may actually cause weight gain by setting in motion insulin, which triggers the body’s fat storage mode.
The New Daily reports on a 2015 study that was published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that found that study subjects that consumed ASBs gained almost triple the body fat of those that didn’t, though researchers stopped short of connecting it directly to the drinks.
The problem could lie in the fact that artificial sweeteners in diet drinks make them taste much sweeter than the real thing. Aspartame, used in most diet drinks, is 200 times sweeter than natural sugar.
“Human brains really aren’t set up to be able to deal with the intensely-sweet, zero-calorie version of sweetness that artificial sweeteners provide,” nutritionist Kristen Beck says.
“Artificial sweeteners provide an intensely sweet taste without any calories which can actually cause you to crave more sweet foods and drinks.”
They could cause type 2 diabetes
As reported by the BBC, a study at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science found that low-calorie sweeteners altered the metabolism of rats leading to an increase in blood levels, an early sign that type 2 diabetes is in development.
And a Swedish study by the Karolinska Institute on 2,800 adults made the disturbing finding that those who consumed two servings or more of soft drink a day, including diet ones, were almost 2.5 times more likely to have type 2 diabetes.
They could cause cancer and headaches and will probably rot your teeth
Claims of the causal link between artificial sweeteners and cancer have been well documented, but perhaps not as well known are the less malignant effects on the body. Prevention magazine reports that aspartame may cause headaches, insomnia and anxiety (the theory being that it may alter brain chemicals and nerve signals); and that diet soft drinks may damage the cerebellum, the brain’s controller of motor skills. In America, Pepsi has actually eliminated aspartame from its diet soft drinks due to public concerns about the artificial sweetener, but has reportedly simply replaced it with another fake sugar.
You might, as I did, assume that low or zero calorie soft drinks will be better for your teeth than full-sugar ones, but disturbingly, The New Daily reports that the former can have more acidity. It turns out that ASBs contain phosphoric acid (which can be used to remove rust!), so it’s no big leap that teeth enamel degradation and cavities could follow.
Prominent nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton is against the drinks but admits, “You’d really have to drink an awful lot, by which time you’d have no teeth and a few other problems.”
Good to know.
The diet soft drink supporters are not convincing
While she by no means advocates regular consumption of the drinks, dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitian’s Association of Australia Lisa Renn tells The Huffington Post Australia that we shouldn’t be afraid of artificial sweeteners. She advocates a “sometimes food” approach and says claims of diet soft drinks’ harmfulness are “fairly unsubstantiated”.
"The chemicals that are used to artificially sweeten are among the most heavily tested chemicals in our food today. The American drug and food authority has said in quite a clear cut manner that they are safe."
Naturally, the soft drink industry has issues with research that stains its product. Australian Beverages Council CEO Geoff Parker has dismissed them, arguing, “The majority of research and the totality of evidence out there clearly shows that diet soft drinks in particular can be an effective tool in managing weight.”
It’s important to acknowledge that studies indicating the dire health effects of diet soft drinks are currently far from definitive. But when an expert such as Beck would rather choose to have an occasional full-sugar soft drink than a diet variety, you know something’s seriously amiss.
Perhaps I’ll do the same. But I probably should just drink water.
Watch the last episode of Food Detectives before it expires right here: