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Zero sugar - zero effects? Why 'diet' drinks might not work

04 January 2017
Zero sugar - zero effects? Why 'diet' drinks might not work

Sugar-free and "diet" drinks are often seen as the healthier option - but researchers from Imperial College London have argued that they are no more helpful for maintaining a healthy weight than their full-sugar versions.

It claims there is no evidence artificially-sweetened beverages - such as Diet Coke - are better for staying trim or slimming than sugar-filled versions.

However, Professor Tom Sanders, Professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics, King's College London, said the study is an "opinion piece" rather than a review of evidence.

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) such as soft drinks, fruit-flavoured drinks, and sports drinks, make up a third of United Kingdom teenagers' sugar intake, and almost half of all sugar intake in the US. "However, we found no solid evidence to support this", Professor Christopher Millett, senior investigator from Imperial's School of Public Health, wrote in the review, which was published in the journal PLOS One.

However, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: 'Our extensive evidence review showed swapping to low or no sugar drinks goes some way to managing calorie intake and weight.

Overconsumption of other foods can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related health problems, researchers said. SSBs provide many calories but very few essential nutrients, and their consumption is a major cause of increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Yet use of artificial sweeteners does not necessarily help given they contain little or no energy and may trigger alternative food intake by stimulating the sweet taste receptors in the mouth.

"The authors also highlight that obesity and type 2 diabetes have been linked in observational studies with higher intakes of artificially sweetened beverages".

Although there was no direct evidence for a role of ASBs in weight gain, they found there was no evidence ASBs aid weight loss or prevent weight gain compared with the full sugar versions.

A year ago the Government moved forward with plans for a sugar tax publishing draft legislation confirming a two-band levy for sugar-added soft drinks.

Artificially sweetened drinks are often subject to more lenient taxes and regulations as sugared drinks.

"Far from helping to solve the global obesity crisis, characteristics related to ASB composition, consumption patterns and environmental impact make them a potential risk factor for highly prevalent chronic diseases". It also said industry-sponsored studies reporting "favourable" associations between diet drinks and weight loss may be biased, it claims.

They also say that producing artificially sweetened drinks is bad for the environment, with up to 300 litres of water needed to produce just half-a-litre of soft drink.

Prof Millett joined with researchers from the University of Sao Paulo and Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil to examine the health benefits of "diet" drinks.

It says the evidence does not suggest they help with weight loss, although they probably do not cause people to put on weight.

It has two thresholds, one for soft drinks with more than five grams of sugar per 100 ml and one for those with more than eight grams per 100 ml.