Diet soft drinks began way back in 1952, when a New York-based company launched a sugar-free ginger ale called No-Cal. This was created with Diabetics in mind, not dieters. Over the next few decades, several other companies began to compete in this arena and, in 1963, the Coca-Cola Company joined in with the launch of the cyclamate and saccharin sweetened ‘Tab’. In 1982 our very own Elle Macpherson strutted her stuff on the very famous TV commercial. This was closely followed by the release of Diet Pepsi in the 1960’s. Over the years there have been numerous reformulations of these diet drinks due to the banning of certain sweetening agents and their links to ill health and disease (in the case of cyclamates, the FDA banned them on evidence they caused cancer in lab rats). These days most are still sweetened with aspartame (Nutrasweet) or a combination of several different artificial sweeteners.
It’s interesting … while there have been rumblings about the potential health risks of diet soft drinks for many years now (regular drinkers have a 43% increased risk of stroke and heart attack and other vascular problems), it’s not until you hear that your risk of gaining weight is increased by 54.5% with just 1-2 cans a day that the majority of the soda drinking population prick their ears up! Let’s explore this further…
What are we drinking?
The primary ingredient is carbonated water. After this the ingredients vary, commonly a cocktail of artificial flavours, sweeteners, colours, acidifying and buffering agents, viscosity-producing and foaming agents and preservatives.
Sweeteners: Whilst those used in these drinks are ‘approved’ by the governing authorities, many other health practitioners caution against their consumption due to numerous complaints of side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, mood swings, nausea, seizures and abdominal pain.
Phosphoric Acid: This ingredient stops soft drinks from going flat. Unfortunately it also leaches calcium from your bones and teeth in an attempt to restore your bodys delicate balance of phosphorus and calcium. It also neutralizes hydrochloric acid in your stomach, which is needed for digestion.
Potassium and sodium benzoate: These are preservatives that fend off mold and bacteria. When mixed with vitamin C the reaction forms benzene – a chemical which has been linked to leukemia and other cancers (according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest). Benzene is the same chemical which is released into the air from car emissions, burning coal and oil. It’s also used extensively in production of dyes, detergents, synthetic fibres, solvents, rubber and plastics. The US FDA conducted a food testing program between 1995 and 2000 and found that 79% of the soft drinks were found to have benzene above safe levels.
Artificial colouring: Various colouring, such as blue 1, caramel, red 40 and yellow 5 are common in soft drinks. Caramel colouring has recently been the topic of interest with studies showing these brown-coloured soft drinks contain a dose of the chemical 4-methylimidazole, or 4-Mel, commonly referred to on labels simply as ‘caramel colouring’. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer say the chemical may cause cancer and is concerned about exposure above 29 micrograms/day. Many soft drinks tested contained amounts of 4-Mel above this level.
The low down
The perception that diet sodas are a healthier alternative to sugary soft drinks might be very wrong, according to the results of the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging, which were reported at the American Diabetes Association (ADA) 2011 Scientific Sessions.
This study, conducted over a 9 year period, showed that overall consumers of diet soft drinks experienced a 70% greater increase in waist circumference than non-consumers.
This is not the first study to associate weight gain with the consumption of diet soft drinks. In 2005, another study found that those who consumed 1-2 cans per day of diet soft drink had a 54.5% greater chance of being overweight or obese, plus for each can consumed per day, a persons risk of obesity increased by 41%!
So how can this be so when there is no sugar and almost no calories in diet drinks?
There are several possibilities…
- the sweet taste has an effect on the appetite control centre in our brain
- the sweet taste may stimulate an insulin response, just as it would when sugar is consumed. Insulin is a ‘fat storage’ hormone
- it’s possible there is no effect at all, except that overweight people may tend to drink more diet drinks (it’s a chicken & egg situation!)
At this stage, there is no conclusive evidence to indicate which of these may be most plausible, however, the fact remains that, for whatever reason/s, diet sodas increase your risk of gaining excess body fat and, the more you consume the greater your risk.
Given the ingredients outlined above and the fact that these drinks may also increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, stroke, heart attack, weight gain and possibly even cancer, I really can’t think of a good reason to partake…