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Death by diet soda

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A new study has found that those who drink artificially sweetened drinks are likely to do sooner than those who hardly drank sugar-free beverages.

A new study has found that those who consume vast amounts of artificially sweetened drinks were 26% more likely to die prematurely than those who rarely drank sugar-free beverages. | Pexels

There was a collective gasp among Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi drinkers this week after media reports on a new study that found prodigious consumers of artificially sweetened drinks were 26% more likely to die prematurely than those who rarely drank sugar-free beverages.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, followed 450 000 Europeans over 16 years and tracked mortality among soft-drink consumers – those fond of sugary beverages and those who favoured sugar-free drinks.

Given the well-documented health effects of consuming too much sugar, the authors found that people who drank two or more glasses of sugar-sweetened beverages a day were 8% more likely to die young than those who consumed less than one glass a month.

But what grabbed headlines, and prompted widespread angst, was the suggestion that drinking Diet Coke could be even more deadly than drinking Coca-Cola Classic.

“It would probably be prudent to limit consumption of all soft drinks and replace them with healthier alternatives like water,” said Amy Mullee, a nutritionist at University College Dublin, one of 50 researchers who worked on the study.

Over the past year, other research in the US also found a correlation between artificially sweetened beverages and premature death.

The problem, experts say, is that these studies have been unable to resolve a key question: Could it be that people who drink lots of Diet Coke or Sprite Zero lead a more unhealthy lifestyle to begin with? Some nutritionists, epidemiologists and behavioural scientists think the latter may be true. (It’s a theory that will resonate with anyone who has guiltily ordered a Diet Coke with their double cheese burger.)

“It could be that some people rationalise their unhealthy lifestyle by saying, ‘Now that I’ve had a diet soda, I can have those French fries’,”said Vasanti S Malik, a researcher at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health. He was the lead author of a study in April that found that the link between artificial sweeteners and increased mortality in women was largely inconclusive. 

The authors of the JAMA paper tried to account for risk factors by removing participants who were smokers or obese.

But Dr David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said these so-called observational studies could not really determine cause and effect. 

“Maybe it’s just that people with an increased risk of mortality, like those with overweight or obesity, are choosing to drink diet soda, but in the end this doesn’t solve their weight problem and they die prematurely.”

Concerns about artificial sweeteners have been around since the 1970s, when studies found that large quantities of saccharin caused cancer in lab rats.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a temporary ban on the sweetener, but subsequent research found the chemical to be safe for humans. More recently, chemical sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose have also been extensively studied, with little evidence they harm human health.  |  The New York Times