The low down on diet drinks—How much is okay?
By Ellina Wood
Walking through the grocery store it can be hard not to notice all the foods and beverages labeled “sugar free” or “diet”, but are these good choices? Often these beverages do not contain sucrose or fructose (think cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup), but instead are sweetened with FDA-approved sugar substitutes or “non-nutritive sweeteners”. Aspartame, sucralose and saccharin are non-nutritive sweeteners that have intense sweetening power and are used to flavor artificially-sweetened beverages (ASBs) including carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks.
ASBs are a popular choice because they tend to have low-to-no calories. For someone who is watching calories, this seems like a practical way to go. While switching out sugar-sweetened beverages with ASBs can be a helpful way to reduce calories, it’s not necessarily a weight loss no-brainer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines caution “replacing added sugars with non-caloric sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a weight management strategy.” Research that focuses on populations who regularly consume ASBs shows that weight loss is not always the outcome.
FDA approved artificial sweeteners / Brand Names
- Saccharin / Sweet ‘n Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin
- Aspartame / Nutrasweet, Equal
- Aceulfame Potassium / Sunett, Sweet One
- Sucralose / Splenda
- Neotame / NA
- Advantame / NA
A diet soda every once in awhile is harmless enough, but how much is too much?
This question is still being debated. The FDA supports the safety of ASBs when consumed in moderate amounts. There is an established acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each of the FDA-approved artifical sweeteners. The ADI is the amount that is considered safe for a person to consume each day over the span of a lifetime and it corresponds to an individual’s body weight, thus, it varies for each person. The ADI is set at 1% of the amount that has been found not to produce any adverse health effects in animal studies.
- ADI Example: The ADI for aspartame is 50 milligrams for each kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, 3,409 milligrams a day would be safe according to FDA. A 12-ounce can of diet soda contains around 200 milligrams of aspartame. Therefore, the ADI for a person weighing 150 pounds would be about 17 12-oz cans of diet soda/day.
However, there is some research that suggests limiting daily ASB intake much lower than the ADI due to observed risks for several diseases. Multiple observational studies have made use of nationwide cohorts (including the Nurse’s Health Study, Women’s Health Initiative Study, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study) to examine the health effects of daily ASB consumption. Such studies suggest there may be adverse health risks associated with “regular high intake levels of ASBs”, defined as one to four drinks per day depending on the study. While there is a lot of speculation about the potential adverse effects of these sweeteners, the available scientific evidence is too fuzzy to draw definitive conclusions about the health effects of diet drinks.
Although future studies must be conducted to definitively link ASBs to health outcomes, experts from the American Heart Association science committee counsel against “regular and long-term consumption of diet beverages.”
While diet soda can be an effective transitionary drink from sugar-sweetened beverages, there are now alternatives to both options that offer more valuable nutrition. “Kicking the can” isn’t necessary, but small changes can present opportunities to enhance hydration and nutrition.
Craving Carbonation or Caffeine?
Do you love that fizzy feeling from drinking a soda? Or are you after a caffeine buzz? Thankfully there are many healthy alternatives available on the market that are just as easy to grab and go!
- Sparkling and mineral waters are popular soda substitutes that can be mixed with fresh fruit.
- Kombucha is a fermented tea with a nice bubbly feel that offers a load of probiotics.
- Homemade black, green or herbal teas can be flavored with citrus or herbs and served hot or cold.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with a smoothie made with fresh fruit.
Thinking about weaning?
- Step 1 is to read nutrition labels to find out if your food or beverage contains unexpected artificial sweeteners. In addition to ASB drinks, artificial sweeteners are often in processed foods, including baked goods, condiments, dairy products, and puddings. Then decide where it makes sense to make changes.
- When thirsty, reach for a refillable water bottle.
- Instead of purchasing the standard 12 oz. cans of diet soda replace them with the smaller 8 oz. cans to help manage portions.
- Set realistic goals for yourself each week: For example, if you are currently having three ASBs a day then a next step could be challenging yourself to only two a day and choosing an alternative once a day.
Get to know our author
Ellina Wood is an Army Veteran pursuing a degree in Nutrition and Food Science at CSU. She is passionate about community and international nutrition. She is studying the dietary diversity with indigenous women in the rural provinces of Ecuador. Wood plans to obtain a Masters in Public Health and become a RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist).
For additional resources to healthy eating, check out these programs from our registered dietitian nutritionists. More health tips are also available at the College of Health and Human Sciences Pinterest board. Lastly, don’t forget to sign up for the KRNC monthly newsletter!