Diet Drinks - Are Artificial Sweeteners Worse Than Sugar?
Many people prefer the taste, or the calorie content, of diet versions of soft drinks. But some people claim they are worse for your health than their sugar-loaded counterparts. Here's a look at what actually goes into those drinks to make them taste sweet.
There are several artificial sweeteners currently used in diet drinks in place of sugar. The most well-known is probably aspartame, but some drinks now contain sucralose or acesulfame K. The artificial sweeteners in diet drinks are much sweeter than sugar. This means a drink can be sweetened using a tiny amount of sweetener, contributing very little in the way of calories.
Artificial sweeteners do taste different from the sugars used in regular drinks, although some people cannot tell the difference. Some people dislike the taste of sweeteners and can detect an unpleasant aftertaste. Newer formulations, often containing acesulfame K or sucralose, or some combination of sweeteners, and generally thought to taste more like natural sugar.
No study has shown that consumption of diet drinks helps to lose weight. There are several theories that drinking diet drinks actually leads to people putting on weight. One explanation is that a sweet taste, accompanied with no calories, ‘confuses' the body leading to an increased appetite.
Aspartame - artificial sweetener used in Diet Coke
Aspartame contains two different types of amino acids (these are the building blocks proteins) joined together chemically. Aspartame is broken down in the body to form the two naturally-occurring amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methanol. All three products are encountered by the body during digestion of other foods, and should be metabolised easily.
Methanol is highly toxic, but is present in very small amounts and is processed by the body. Some natural fruit juices actually contain more methanol than is generated after drinking a diet drink. People suffering from the condition phenylketonuria have to limit their intake of phenylalanine, as they cannot metabolise it properly, and so should avoid aspartame-containing drinks. Levels of aspartic acid and phenylalanine in the body may ‘spike' after consuming aspartame, but there is no evidence that this is toxic, and no evidence that this affects brain function.
A study of rats showed increased levels of leukaemia and lymphomas in those fed with very large doses of aspartame, but human data shows no link between increased aspartame consumption and levels of cancer. The scientific consensus is that aspartame does not cause cancer.
You can find aspartame in most diet drinks - Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi are purely sweetened with aspartame. It seems most likely that consuming aspartame is safe, although, as with anything, excessive consumption could potentially cause problems.
Sucralose and Acesulfame K - newer artificial sweeteners
Sucralose is probably better known by the brand name Splenda. It is produced by taking the common sugar sucrose, and replacing some atoms with chlorine atoms. Most sucralose ingested passes straight through the body without being metabolised, some is excreted by the kidneys, and a small amount is broken down by the body.
No studies have shown any toxic effects of consuming sucralose, though some people have worries about it because it is not a natural substance, and long-term studies on human health have not been carried out yet.
Acesulfame K is often used as a sweetener blended with aspartame or sucralose. It is not metabolised by the body and is excreted unchanged. Safety studies have found no toxic effects of acesulfame K on human health.
Coke Zero and Diet Coke with Lemon/Lime are sweetened with a mixture of aspartame and acesulfame K.
Sugar or artificial sweeteners?
A can of Coke has around 10 teaspoons of sugar in it, and not much else in the way of nutrients, so in general, probably not the best choice of drink. Diet and normal Coke contain other potentially nasty things like sodium benzoate. Replacing the sugar with artificial sweetener may put some people off, but overall, it seems unlikely that drinking diet drinks in moderation does any more harm than drinking regular soft drinks.
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"Thanks for clearing that up for me, I have blood sugar problems so I have to drink diet drinks, but every time I do I get a sermon about how bad it is for me and how I will die an early death because of aspartame. I sick of these sermons now I have a sermon of my own"
"I would be interested to find out who carried out these studies cited in this article. It does not say who researched or importantly who funded the research."