Soda sales are at an all-time low. After enjoying decades of being the top-selling category of nonalcoholic beverages, Americans are opting out – choosing healthier drinks like water, unsweetened tea, and fresh juice. Alternative drinks are on the rise, too. There's our collective kombucha craze, drinking vinegars, and, of course, coconut water.
It’s no secret that sugary sodas have been linked to numerous health issues, namely obesity and type-2 diabetes. They’ve been ousted from school systems, and in cities where sales taxes have been implemented on sodas – a fairly recent trend that’s poised to continue in the U.S. - marked decreases in soda sales are happening within mere months of the tax.
The recently implemented soda tax in Philadelphia has been so effective its forced Coca-Cola to cut jobs as product demand decreases.
But diet sodas may not be a viable substitute for the sugary stuff, either. In fact, they may be even riskier than sweetened sodas.
A recent study linked the consumption of diet sodas – due to the artificial sweeteners they contain - to an increased risk of dementia and stroke. The study, published in the recent issue of the American Heart Association’s journal, noted that people who consumed just one diet soda per day (compared with people who never consumed them) were three times as likely to experience an ischemic stroke or be diagnosed with dementia. But that's not a nod to reach for the sugary sodas, either, as they too have been linked to cognitive decline as well as heart disease and stroke risk.
“With obesity and diabetes on the rise sugar is being looked at as the main
culprit of disease and major ingredient in unhealthy life style,” says Maria Sorbara Mora, MS, R.D., CEDRD, CDN, PRYT, RYT, and Co-Founder and Director of Nutrition and Yoga Services at Aurora Behavioral Health in New York. But, she notes, the alternative isn’t much better, pointing to the “loads of foods and beverages with
artificial sweeteners added.”
According to Mora, artificial sweeteners reduce healthy gut bacteria, a significant concern as the microbiome, as its also called, is linked not just to digestive health, but also to immune function, mood, and behavior.
“[Poor gut health] has been linked to issues such as IBS and ulcerative colitis,” and, says Mora, the consumption of artificial sweeteners has also been linked to autoimmune disorders and increased stomach acidity that can lead to tooth decay – an affliction more often linked with sugar-sweetened sodas.
Diet sodas have also been linked to weight gain by triggering insulin production and causing the body to store excess fat, particularly in the gut.
“Along with this, the 'sweeter than sugar' taste has been linked to increase sugar cravings,” notes Mora. So, while you may opt for diet soda to avoid the sugar in conventional soda, you may be more likely to make up those sugar calories elsewhere after a diet soda "triggers" your sweet tooth.
“You're not going to get most nutritionists giving a positive about diet soda so I may be in the minority here,” says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, Associate Clinical Professor Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.
Ayoob is a consultant to the Calorie Control Council which navigates all sweeteners, caloric or non-caloric. He’s also on the advisory board of the Global Stevia Institute; stevia is a naturally sweet plant that performs like an artificial sweetener. But despite his affiliations, Ayoob says his comments on artificial sweeteners are “science-based.”
Likening diet soda to a tool (“a hammer is also a good tool, but only on a nail, not a finger”), he says when used to replace sugar artificial sweeteners are both “safe” and “great” tools.
“The safeguards and tests in place are legendary, lengthy and thorough,” Ayoob says. “They're approved throughout the world by legions of scientific bodies and organizations.”
And they are. Diet sweeteners have been tested and scrutinized almost more than any other ingredient so prevalent in our food system. But as science digs deeper – and there’s always deeper digging to do on how foods affect our bodies – they’re finding more risks than ever before in consuming artificial sweeteners.
Ayoob points me to a study that he says found people who consume diet sodas may eat healthier diets overall. But the study showed people who consumed diet soda had greater likelihood of developing diabetes or obesity, despite self-reported efforts to lose weight.
He backpedals on his praise a bit.
“As a clinician, I've never felt low-calorie sweeteners were any panacea or cure-all, nor should they be seen as something to make you lose weight.”
It's that connotation of weight loss -- that word “diet” emblazoned on scores of bottles and cans, that may be the most problematic of all. While consumers often read that to mean that by design the product will help them lose weight, the more accurate definition is that the product itself is "dieted" down from its original sugar-laden sibling. There’s never been any evidence to connect drinking diet soda with weight loss, unless, like Ayoob notes, it’s replacing a diet heavy in excess calories from sugar. But replacing a sugary drink with anything unsweetened – water, tea, unsweetened milk, even black coffee – would be likely to yield the same result in weight loss. It's a stone soup -- and whatever you replace those excess sugar calories with is can help achieve weight loss goals.
Except, of course, for diet soda's link to metabolic disorders. Whether its aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose, they've all been linked to triggering the body into storing fat.
“Neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are necessarily bad,” Susie Swithers, a neurobiologist at Purdue University told PBS News Hour, “it’s just that we now are in a place where people’s diets contain so many sweeteners that we are overloading our ability to actually consume them.”
Sugar is a necessary part of our diet. Certainly not high fructose corn syrup –but glucose is the body’s most critical energy source. It’s not without risk, though, as our overconsumption of sodas and sugar in general has proven. But the ersatz isn’t proving to be a viable substitute, either. While science will likely continue the research and the debate over sugars – both “natural” and artificial ad infinitum, good old-fashioned moderation and a focus on real ingredients seem to be the only things that don’t fizzle out.
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