A new health study could crimp diet soda sales

The category has been a bright spot in the dismal soft drink market, but fresh claims about artificial sweeteners may change that.

By Jonathan Berr Jul 15, 2013 2:50PM
Soft drinks in a cooler at a gas station in San Francisco, Calif., on March 25, 2013 (© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP), which have been battling declines in per-capita soda consumption for years, have counted on zero- or low-calorie alternatives to take up the slack. But with a new study raising questions about the health effects of diet soda, that's going to prove tougher.

Ingesting "fake sugar" results in the body's not knowing how to process the real thing and can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, among other problems, according to researchers at Purdue University, who reviewed 40 years of research on the subject.

The study, published as an opinion article in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, also raises questions about the growing use of artificial sweeteners in other products.

"There is a lot of pressure from the public health sector to find solutions to counter the rise of obesity and chronic disease, and there is a lot of money and business at stake for the food industry as it develops and promotes these products," Purdue professor Susan Swithers said in a press release. She added that most efforts that seek to discourage soda drinking don't mention diet soda, because it's wrongly perceived as healthy.

The American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, disputes Swithers' statement and argues that diet sodas have been shown to be an effective weight-loss tool.  

Experts, however, have argued for years that diet sodas are at best a less-bad alternative to regular sugared beverages. Consumption of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi and their rivals has been linked to kidney problems and speeding up intoxication when mixed in cocktails.

Nonetheless, diet sodas are a bright spot in the depressed carbonated beverages market precisely because they're sold as a healthier alternative to full-calorie beverages. Diet soda consumption grew by 25% in the past decade among adults and more than doubled among children, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Many nutritionists, though, encourage people to avoid diet beverages, given the questions about their health risks.

"For adults trying to wean themselves from sugary soda, diet soda may be the beverage equivalent of a nicotine patch: something to be used in small amounts, for a short time, just until you kick the habit," according to the Harvard School of Public Health. "For children," it added, "the long-term effects of consuming artificially sweetened beverages are unknown, so it's best for kids to avoid them."

Jonathan Berr owns a small position in Coca-Cola. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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Jul 15, 2013 3:54PM
The reality, everything is harmful if over done.  They have studies to prove that eating to many apples can increase your risk of stomach cancer, and so on.  We have become a society of over - in-dulgence.  That is the issue.  We overdo everything.
Jul 15, 2013 5:52PM
Around our house we use real sugar, real butter but stick to the golden rule of moderation.  We have no weight issues neither do my kids or grand kids. My last checkup this year gave me a spotless blood work and health report.  We even eat white bread occasionally.
Jul 15, 2013 5:48PM
Everything is bad or is a hazard to your health. Too much water, to much soda, the sun, eating vegetables, talking on your cell phone, a computer in your lap, fried food, prescription drugs, the list goes on and on and on. Cant live in fear of everything, the stress can lead to a heart attack and kill you. Just live the life you want, do what you want and when its your time hope you feel fulfilled. 
Jul 15, 2013 4:59PM
My dad used saccharine as a sweetener for 45 years with no adverse side effects and died at the age of 87 of pneumonia.  No cancer, no diabetes, no heart problem, just old age.  This is just another scare tactic to keep us worrying about trivial matters rather than the fact that our government has become a cancerous growth on our backside.
Jul 15, 2013 5:49PM
Artificial sweeteners, genetically altered foods, plastics, fertilizers, greenhouse gases, melting icebergs and other man made intrusions on the earth are killing or mutating all living creatures on this planet.  Is it too late to change?  Other countries are making changes to protect their food and living spaces, but corporations in the US won't consider it for a minute because it will cost them too much????   How much will it cost in the health of our nation if we don't make changes???  Greed hurts everybody.
Jul 15, 2013 4:13PM

all in moderation, but I don't believe any of that artificial stuff is good for you, too much of a good thing is bad.


Jul 15, 2013 4:52PM
For years I had frequent migraines.  I stopped drinking diet soda, and the migraines pretty much disappeared. 
Jul 15, 2013 4:46PM
It's not just sodas, perhaps it's the overeating that causes obesity and disease. Ever notice that there are a lot of obese people around. They're not all soda drinkers, overindulging in mega portions and not exercising. I'm out in the public everyday and it is very disheartening to see the amount of obese people out there, children and  adults. Yet it almost seems like they don't even see the problem. Sad
Jul 15, 2013 7:51PM
Drinking artificial sweeteners in cola drinks in the 1960's caused me a horrendous case of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) that finally subsided years later when I got off all artificially-sweetened drinks.  Do yourself a favor, drink water!

Jul 15, 2013 3:12PM
There are many alternatives to diet sodas using artificial sweetners,; Izzies (70% fruit juice), tea, water,  etc.
Jul 15, 2013 8:04PM
Jul 15, 2013 7:09PM
If you want to sell more pop quit raising the price to the point were just about anything else is cheaper.
Jul 15, 2013 11:49PM
Drinking water or sugarless iced tea seem to work fine for me.  0 calories without weird chemicals. Not really sure why you need these diet drinks.  I drink a regular coke or other drink once in awhile as a treat. 
Jul 15, 2013 7:34PM
Jul 15, 2013 6:21PM
I agree not only because of the artificial sweetener but my VA nutritionist said the carbonation also depletes vital nutrients. Especially calcium.
Jul 15, 2013 6:46PM
If I stop eating everything that is "bad" for my health, and doing everything that is "Dangerous", and going places that are risky, and owning and being around guns, and fast cars, then what's the point of living???  If we did all this stuff and then starting living even longer, then we will need death panels and death squads to get rid of all the old people that are using our resources and helping pollute the planet!  Who cares give me a coke, or a diet coke if its Jack in it, I want to get drunk!!!!!   Oh, is that bad too??? 
Jul 15, 2013 5:29PM

These studies need to be more broadly published, including the methodologies.   The conclusions they have reached before regarding this, were based on false assumptions and the results were explainable by other factors.


I'll take my chances with fake sweeteners over high fructose industrially manufactured from corn fake sugar any day.



Jul 15, 2013 3:53PM
Does anyone know if the same logic applies to artificial sweetners?
Jul 15, 2013 10:55PM
Years ago before nutritionist came along you never heard of all of this stuff. Nowadays what was good for you yesterday might kill you tomorrow. Then on the other hand what was bad for you yesterday is just fine today....how in the world do they expect us less educated to understand it when they can't figure it out themselves.
Jul 15, 2013 8:45PM
 Dream on. Do your own test on your own body. Fake sugar does confuse my system just like fake butter does. I had very high cholesterol after being on a very low saturated fat diet for about five years. When I saw the high cholesterol count I started eating real butter, steak, eggs, bacon and hamburgers on a regular basis. I had avoided eggs almost all my life. I avoid fake butter as completely as I can and it took less than five years to get my cholesterol count into the normal range, just with that change of diet. Diet soda's caused sugar swings for me.  Getting off the diet soda stopped those swings in a few days. I had gout fairly often and bad enough to need Colchicine every few months. Then I got where it would not work. The other meds for gout were more than my stomach could take. I forgot the name of it. By chance, I started drinking red wine every night before bed time and in three months my gout was gone and has been gone now for over 7 years. That is the only change in my diet. So, it had to be the cure. Will it work for others? Doctors say it could not work for me and likewise others. I strongly disagree.
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