There has been a lot of press lately that diet sodas, particularly the artificial sweeteners used in them, can actually lead to weight gain as well as a host of additional health problems. But, how much of this is hype and how much is fact? While I cannot answer that question, and at this point no one can regardless of what they say, I will do my best to give you a brief review of what my fellow scientists have found out about the effects of artificially sweetened beverages (ASB) on weight gain.
Let’s start with a basic question, what defines an artificially sweetened beverage? Well, that would be any beverage that has no, or negligible, calories and are therefore of no, or negligible, nutritive value. These are in contrast to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) which are often sweetened by high-fructose corn syrup (that’s a whole other article). These artificial sweeteners as their name implies are chemically engineered and are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than standard table sugar. Currently the Food and Drug Administration has approved five artificial sweeteners as safe for human consumption: acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin (yes a study did link saccharin to bladder cancer in rodents, but was never replicated and the doses given were extremely high), and sucralose. All of these artificial sweeteners are used in a myriad of foods and beverages and most can be conveniently found in small, pastel-colored packets in that hallowed ground known as Starbucks™.
So, as we all know the makers of these artificial sweeteners and the vendors you use them have fed countless millions into the marketing machine in order to promote their consumption and the consumption of the products they are in, but how much of these sweet chemicals do we as Americans consume? Surprisingly, that is difficult to say. Our two primary sources of data regarding food and beverage consumption in the US, the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey (NFCS) and the National Health and Nutritive Surveillance (NHANES) survey define “diet beverages” as only diet soft drinks or carbonated water. This does not account for the consumption of non-carbonated pre-ASBs or the use of artificial sweeteners to sweeten other non-carbonated beverages such as tea and coffee. So, what data do we possess? Well, interestingly enough, only about 10% to 8% percent of Americans report drinking ASBs; whereas, the estimate of those consuming SSBs was about ten-fold at around 80%. These numbers tended to increase with age. It could be assumed that if non-carbonated beverages were to have been included that the numbers would be somewhat higher.
Now that we have some background information, do the 8% - 10% of people that drink ASBs tend to gain weight more readily than who do not consume ASBs? Well that’s a tricky question to ask without first explaining a small caveat regarding ASBs and weight gain. Most individuals who drink these “diet” sodas and such typically...