I think we all know that person who drinks 15 Diet Cokes a day. Maybe you are that person. No judgement here. You’ve probably also heard that it’ll give you cancer or make you fat. Maybe you saw the Food Babe rail against the horrors of diet soda. Maybe you have nutritional backlash and don’t believe any nutrition science. Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about.
We all know that added sugar is bad for us. The average american eats 318 calories from added sugar a day, even though the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than half that. A study that took place over 15 years tells us that “individuals who consume higher amounts of added sugar, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, tend to gain more weight and have a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemias, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease (CVD).” Americans get more than a third of their added sugar from sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks, and if you’re anything like me, fancy iced coffees. I used to congratulate myself for not drinking soda, but then I realized my favorite chai has 38 grams of sugar… which is the same as a can of Coke. So I really have no room to talk.
Because of this, there’s been an effort to reduce the sugar people get from drinks. One way to do this is by replacing sugar with fake sugar since that’s way easier than trying to get people to not drink soda. Saccharin, aka Sweet’N Low, has been around since the 1879. The story of its discovery is hilarious— a Russian chemist named Constantin Fahlberg came home from work one day and at dinner he noticed that his bread tasted incredibly sweet. Instead of worrying about accidentally poisoning himself, he ran to his lab and tasted everything on his worktable. Chemists are a strange people. He somehow figured it out without dying, and people started using it to sweeten soda almost immediately after. The first effort of many to ban it came after the creation of the FDA in 1908, but President Teddy Roosevelt liked it too much so the ban failed. Over the next 100 years, more alternative sweeteners were developed and more proposed bans were shot down. There’s essentially been a war going on that none of us have noticed, because it’s only happening between nutritional scientists and the FDA.
The reasons fake sugars would be beneficial are fairly obvious. The reasons might be less intuitive. One idea is that artificial sugars could confuse our brains into thinking that all sweet foods aren’t that bad for us. Another is the people might feel good about having a diet soda at dinner, so they can eat that cake. Obviously that leads to eating just as many, if not more, calories.
Now I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for me to tell you which side the science backs up: the people who say artificial sweeteners are safe, or those who say that they are bad. Unfortunately, there’s no answer to this yet. I read five meta–analyses for this story, which combine the results of hundreds of individual studies. As I’ve mentioned before, in nutrition (and really most scientific pursuits) single studies don’t give you that much information. One would think that hundreds of studies would… but alas. They still disagree.
Most of them have the same conclusion: artificially sweetened beverages can reduce the number of calories they eat and help people to lose a modest amount of weight. They also agree that more study is needed, because even though there are a lot of studies, most of them are small and poorly done. It’s a very difficult thing to do long term nutritional studies.
And then there are a few that disagree. They find that artificially sweetened foods can make people gain weights, possibly because of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Other data shows they could raise people’s risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2, and hypertension. These are the exact things that proponents say artificial sweeteners can reduce.
Even though this doesn’t make any sense, we can make one assumption: the effect size probably isn’t very large. They probably won’t make you gain weight or drastically reduce, or increase, your risk of many diseases. You’re probably fine drinking that diet coke, but it probably won’t make you healthier either.