Artificial sweeteners (also known as sugar substitutes) give the sweetness of sugar to a product without the calories. These substances are many times sweeter than sugar, so it takes a smaller amount to sweeten foods. So, foods made with artificial sweeteners may have fewer calories than those made with sugar.
Sodas, candies, snacks and desserts are commonly found to have sugar-free versions. We’ve been hearing for years that people that drink regular soda take in more calories and are more likely to be overweight or obese. But, what about Diet sodas? Yes, they have fewer calories from sugar, but are they safe? Are there any side effects?
1. Weight Gain: Yes, you read that right! A recent research study monitored 475 adults for 10 years, and found that those who drank diet soda had a 70% increase in waist circumference over the 10-year study, compared with those who didn’t drink any soda. Those who drank more than two diet sodas per day saw a 500% increase in their waist size!!
Another study looked at mice. That study found that aspartame (Nutrasweet/Equal) raised glucose levels, which resulted in weight gain.
2. Blood sugar levels can still rise: Even though the calories in products with sugar substitutes are usually very low and there’s no sugar in the products, some studies are showing that blood sugar levels can still rise. This can happen with most sugar substitutes. The research points out that if we expect sweetness, but haven’t actually consumed sugar, the liver will produce it’s own sugar (gluconeogenesis) in some people. Long-term use of *any* artificial sweetener may not provide benefits in some people.
3. Greater Diabetes Risk: This is the great paradox with sugar-free products. People with diabetes often still want do drink sodas and eat sweets, so they choose the sugar-free options. However, researchers looked at 6,800 people between the ages of 45 and 84 who consumed diet soda between the years 2000 and 2002. The study then screened them for type 2 diabetes between 2002 and 2007. People who drank at least one diet soda a day at the beginning of the study had a 67 percent higher relative risk of type 2 diabetes compared with the people who drank none. The diet soda drinkers also had an increased risk of metabolic syndrome by 36 percent. (Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors linked to obesity that increase your chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke).
4. Contains cancer-causing ingredients: We hear all the time that sucralose (Splenda) is OK since it’s made from sugar. What we’re actually ingesting is a chlorinated form of sugar. A friend who’s an environmental chemist points out that the chemical structure is a step away from a carcinogen.
High levels of aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal) during pregnancy can result in a rare form of brain cancer in children. A student was the first person to clue us into this situation. Through her pregnancy, she sipped all day on soda to help alleviate her morning sickness. Her baby was healthy until age 3, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. As she did research on the condition, the mother found that the factor common to all these cases was that the pregnant mothers all drank large quantities of sugar-free sodas during pregnancy. The group asked the FDA to ban aspartame. The FDA’s answer? This was a rare form of cancer and didn’t affect a large enough percentage of children. So, the product wasn’t banned but obstetricians now usually warn their pregnant patients to avoid sodas sweetened with aspartame during pregnancy.
Caramel coloring that’s used to color the dark sodas can also be carcinogenic. This information affects those drinking regular soda as well as diet ones. In 2011, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the artificial caramel coloring. The reason: Two contaminants in the coloring have been found to cause cancer in animals. According to California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, just 16 micrograms per person per day of 4-methylimidazole is enough to pose a cancer threat. According to a recent press release by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the amount of 4-methylimidazole varies in the soda according to where it’s produced and sold. Coca cola from California was found to contain 4 micrograms/12-ounce can while coca cola sold elsewhere in the U.S. had 144 micrograms/12-ounce can.
5. Changes in brain chemistry: Looking at the fact that aspartame ingestion by mothers can result in brain cancer is just one indication that these sugar-free chemical substances affect the brains of young children.
Use of additives, like aspartame, in sugar-free products has also been implicated in the development of dementia in older adults. A group petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban aspartame because it contributes to dementia. However, the FDA wouldn’t ban it. They said there are a variety of reasons dementia occurs and it can’t be directly traced to the use of additives like aspartame (Nutrasweet/Equal).
Whether the soda is sugar-free or the full-sugar type, there’s another ingredient that can be a problem with brain chemistry. A popular term that’s surfacing is ‘Mountain Dew Mind’. An ingredient called brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, is often added to citrus-based soft drinks and sports drinks to prevent the flavoring from separating from the drink. BVO is an industrial chemical used as a flame retardant in plastics. (Do you really want to be drinking flame retardant??) The chemical has been known to cause memory loss and nerve disorders when consumed in large quantities. Researchers also suspect that BVO builds up in body fat, possibly causing behavioral problems, infertility, and lesions on heart muscles over time.
6. Accelerated Aging: Diet or regular, all colas contain phosphates, or phosphoric acid. This substance is used for flavoring and to improve shelf life. Although it exists in many whole foods, such as meat, dairy, and nuts, too much phosphoric acid can lead to heart and kidney problems, muscle loss, and osteoporosis. One study suggests it could trigger accelerated aging. The scientific study found that the excessive phosphate levels found in sodas caused lab rats to die a full five weeks earlier than the rats whose diets had more normal phosphate levels. This is especially disturbing since there’s been a trend for increasing levels of phosphoric acid in sodas over the past few decades.
7. Contributes to Water Pollution: The artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas don’t break down in our bodies. And, wastewater treatment plants don’t catch the chemicals before they enter waterways. In 2009, Swiss scientists tested water samples from wastewater-treatment plants, rivers and lakes in Switzerland and detected levels of acesulfame K, sucralose, and saccharin, all of which are used in diet sodas. A recent test of 19 municipal water supplies in the U.S. showed that sucralose was present in every one. It’s not clear yet what these low levels are doing to people, but research has found that sucralose in rivers and lakes interferes with some organisms’ feeding habits.
8. Body Pollution from Cans: It’s not just the soda that’s causing all the problems. Nearly all aluminum soda cans are lined with an epoxy resin called bisphenol A (BPA). The BPA coating’s used to keep the acids in the beverage from reacting with the metal. Studies have shown that BPA is known to interfere with hormones and it’s been linked to a variety of health issues, including infertility, obesity, diabetes and some forms of reproductive cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted that soda cans as well as restaurant, school, and fast-food meals, are a major source of exposure to the chemical.
9. Body contamination from GMOs: Most sodas have ingredients derived from corn. These ingredients include maltodextrin, some caramel flavorings, citric acid, dextrose, honey, cellulose, lactic acid, magnesium citrate (and other citrates), malic acid, maltitol, mannitol, saccharin, sorbitol, xylitol, xanthan gum, the familiar high fructose corn syrup and many others. Over 80% of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. The main reasons for genetic modifications are to resist toxic pesticides or to create pesticides within the plant.
A great deal of politics are related to the approval of food additives in the U.S. (see Marion Nestle’s book, “Food Politics”). Genetically modified crops also need to undergo approval by the Food and Drug Administration before being included in the American diet. According to the Delancy clause, though, if a food (like corn) looks and tastes like the unmodified product, it doesn’t need to be labeled as bio-engineered (or genetically modified).
Independent scientists have studied GMOs and found that, in animals, genetically modified crops (or GMOs), are linked to digestive tract damage, accelerated aging, and even infertility. And, just think, these modified corn-based products are commonly found in sodas!
10. Potential Gastro-intestinal Problems: Be cautious with sugar alcohols — including mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. Sugar alcohols can increase your blood sugar level and may cause diarrhea, gas and bloating. Some people also experience those symptoms with other substitutes, like sucralose (Splenda).
Groups have petitioned the FDA to ban fat substitutes that cause diarrhea, gas and bloating. The government response has been that the substitute doesn’t cause a signification danger to health (such as death). They classify the problems as an inconvenience and require labeling about possible symptoms on some products.
The official government stand is that sugar substitutes are safe when consumed in moderation. However, Nutrition by Nancy is strongly concerned about the effects of these sugar substitutes on the body and the environment.
Often, people who eat ‘sugar-free’ products are also still consuming more total calories than they need. Researchers feel that people drinking these no-sugar drinks miscalculate how many calories they’re actually consuming. Drinking the sugar-free sodas gives people a false sense of security – “I drink the diet soda, so I’m OK on calorie intake.”
So, if diet sodas aren’t good and a person’s thirsty, what should they drink? The primary suggestion is water, but many people say “I want flavor”. So, here are a few ideas:
Pour a big glass of water and add some slices of orange, lemon or lime, a few cut strawberries, or some cucumber slices.
Keep a pitcher of water with cucumber and lemon slices in the refrigerator. We recently added some mint leaves for a wonderful taste. http://nutritionbynancy.com/recipe-cucumberlemon-refresher/
Today, there was a small peach in the fruit basket that needed to be used. It was peeled and sliced, then added to to a big glass of ice water – mmmmm!! Peach-water!
Weak herbal or green tea.
Sparkling water should be just used occasionally. An item to especially watch out for is the amount of sodium in the sparkling water. Also, high use of sparkling waters (and sodas) have been reported as a common cause of kidney stones.