Alt-Health: Artificial Sweeteners

sweetnlowTo drink … or not to drink? Generally, when that question is asked, alcohol is the beverage under scrutiny. But today, we are turning our attention to another end of the industry: diet soda. This seemingly guilt-free beverage has been taking a hit in recent years – but does it deserve its growing reputation as a health hazard?

The controversy over artificial sweeteners is nothing new, and opinions have always been widely varied. These sugar substitutes were initially regarded (and still are, by many) as a helpful aid for diabetics and for weight loss. They had an additional benefit – they don’t contribute to tooth decay or cavities. For a while they seemed like the salvation of dieters everywhere, but artificial sweeteners quickly came under fire by health advocates. In 1977, saccharin was branded with a warning label: “Has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Then, in 2000, under pressure from the food industry’s arsenal of new research, Congress changed its mind and stripped the warnings off. Aspartame has been accused of triggering conditions ranging from migraines to mood disorders, and carries specific warnings for anyone with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria. Sucralose was reported to cause gastrointestinal distress and headaches. For every complaint, science had an answer: These problems were anecdotal. There was no research that clearly pointed to a direct link.

Today, there are six FDA-approved artificial sweeteners on the market: saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), neotame (Newtame) and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One). The newest addition is advantame, a cousin of aspartame. Every one of them has a stack of anecdotal evidence against them, listing negative reactions and side effects. Every one of them remains FDA approved and on the shelves.

On April 20, 2017, Stroke, the online magazine of the American Heart Association, published the results of a study that presented disturbing new evidence. A group of research scientists followed 2,888 participants between 45 and 65 years old for incidents of stroke (mean age 62). 1,484 participants aged 60 years and older (mean age 69) were studied for incidents of  dementia. Between 1991 and 2001, the beverage intake of both groups was documented in detail, and subjects were examined regularly for incident events for 10 years. After adjustments were made for age, sex, education, lifestyle and smoking, the results were clear: Higher cumulative intake of artificially sweetened soft drinks was associated with an increased risk of ischemic stroke, all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s. Surprisingly, even this evidence could not make administrators commit to an opinion; even the study’s lead author said the findings showed an association or trend in a group of people and not a direct cause-and-effect link.

But while medical science could not make up its mind, at a certain point, public opinion began to shift. In the last 10 years, the drinking habits of an entire nation have changed. In 2008, 41.03 million US consumers drank diet soda, but by 2017, that number dropped to 28.75 million. One factor that was key in tipping the scales of public opinion was the news that diet sodas can actually cause weight gain. Researchers at The University of Texas analyzed eight years of data from a San Antonio heart study and found that the more diet sodas a person drank, the more likely he or she was to gain weight. Although scientists could not “prove” why, dieters didn’t really care.

Today, the mainstream soft drink industry is fizzling out. But while the makers of Diet Coke and Pepsi are lamenting their fate and throwing new flavors and packaging at us to hold onto their corner of the market, bottled water, a much healthier alternative, has become a booming business. Since 2000, bottled-water consumption has tripled, and in 2016, for the first time ever, sales of water surpassed that of soda in the United States. Related products such as flavored water and seltzer have grown even faster, and sales of “value-added” water, such as Coca-Cola’s vitaminwater, have grown by nearly 3,000%. And while the profit-driven advertising campaigns remain the same, the products show a much welcome healthier trend in public attitude.

A fun fact for drinkers: Using diet soda as a low-calorie cocktail mixer will get you drunk faster than sugar-sweetened beverages. According to a research study at Northern Kentucky University, participants who drank cocktails made with diet drinks had a higher breath alcohol concentration than those who drank alcohol blended with sugared beverages. Apparently, our bloodstream can absorb artificial sweetener more quickly than sugar. Who knew?

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