If I asked you to choose between a full strength Coca Cola and a Diet Coke, which one would you choose? You can’t say neither you have to pick one. This is a question I put to my students this week. What generated this question was when a student said you shouldn’t drink diet Coke because it was full of chemicals. ‘What chemicals?’ I asked and they said the artificial sweeteners. ‘What’s wrong with artificial sweeteners?’ They cause cancer don’t they?
The first artificial sweetener made was saccharin in 1879. It was produced because it was cheaper than sugar at the time. From the 1960s it was the most widely used sweetener in low energy food but due to a bitter aftertaste was soon replaced by other sweeteners. Now there are a range of artificial sweeteners used in a range of foods including yoghurt, chewing gum, sports drinks, desserts and soft drinks.
Aspartame is the artificial sweetener which has attracted the most attention over the years due to claims it causes cancer, headaches, seizures, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, blindness, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, vertigo, dizziness, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, and memory loss. Wow that’s one toxic food ingredient. With that many claims against aspartame you would think those clever scientists would do some research to find out if any of these claims are actually true.
To measure that potential dangers of artificial sweeteners scientist carry out animal studies to investigate if these sweeteners actually cause any harm.
The animal studies, (conducted mainly in rats), have shown aspartame causes lymphomas and leukaemia. Cyclamate, another sweetener, has been shown to have adverse effects on the reproductive tract and saccharin was associated with higher rates of bladder cancer. So there’s your evidence, artificial sweeteners cause cancer right? No not exactly.
Firstly these studies have been carried out in rats. Rats aren’t humans, so it’s hard to link the two. Second the artificial sweeteners in studies are administered to animals in massive amounts – far greater than humans could possibly consume in foods and drinks. The World Cancer Research Fund found the evidence does not suggest that artificial sweeteners have a detectable effect on the risk of any cancer and numerous studies have ruled out any association with headaches, seizures, behavior, cognition, mood, allergic reactions, and other conditions.
There is even one reported study carried out on monkeys over a period of 20 years and they were fed high dosages of artificial sweeteners with no long term adverse effects. So is there an upper limit on how much artificial sweetener you should consume each day? Yes it is around 1680mg/day. So how much Diet Coke would you need to drink to get to this limit, well around 13 cans of Diet Coke, 18 cans of Coke Zero or 17 cans of Pepsi Max. Now I don’t know anyone who would come even close to this amount. And even if you did drink this much, the risk of developing cancer due to artificial sweeteners is quite low.
So back to my original question what would you choose to drink, a full strength Coca Cola or a Diet Coke? Personally, I’d go for a full strength and it would have to be Vanilla Coke simply because it tastes better and I would only have this once a month if that. If you don’t mind the taste of diet soft drinks and are trying to manage your weight, diet soft drinks would be preferable. If you are in the habit of drinking diet soft drinks every day try to limit them to no more than two a day. Be aware you may be more inclined to eat more high energy foods because drinking artificially sweetened beverages tricks the brain into thinking the body has just received an energy boost. When it’s not delivered the body may craved more food high fat and sugar.
The best beverage for health and hydration will always be water, chilled with a hint of lemon. Having a soft drink occasionally, either full strength or diet, won’t kill you but forming the habit of consuming these regularly won’t be doing your weight or health any favours in the long run.