The harsh truth behind “sugar free” beverages

Fad diets are a controversial nutrition challenge that comes with advances in nutrition science and technology. At the moment, sugar is a hot topic in the modern day nutrition arena and rather the elimination of it from diet to combat the extreme challenges of metabolic management. There is plenty of evidence to show that the effects of added sugar are linked to higher risks of metabolic conditions such as high blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain and fatty liver. Cue the ‘sugar free’ beverages!

Sugary drinks, or sugar sweetened beverages, refer to any beverage with added sugar or sweeteners such as sucrose, fruit juice concentrates and corn syrup. This ranges from fruit juices, “ades,” sports and energy drinks, soft drinks, flavoured waters, and tea and coffee with added sugar. Once the consensus came that sugar was bad, a flux of new and alternative beverages that use artificial sweeteners were on the market.

To be clear, artificial sweeteners are synthetic chemicals that mimic the sweetness associated with sugar sweetened beverages. Generally speaking, they give things a sweet taste without the added calories and therefore companies use this as a strategic marketing approach to promote these beverages as the ‘healthy’ or ‘diet’ alternative. If you are confused as to whether these ‘sugar free,’ ‘diet,’ and ‘healthy alternative’ beverages are as good as they are made out to be, you are not alone and we are here to provide you with the real facts behind artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners are not ‘healthy.’ Too much sugar can cause an overproduction of the hormone insulin and when your muscle, fat and liver cells don’t respond well to insulin, the pancreas becomes weak. People call it insulin resistance and if left undiagnosed or untreated, will eventually lead to diabetes. Research shows that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners is commonly mistaken for sugar by the body cells, causing the pancreas to release insulin. This increase in blood insulin can eventually decrease the body’s ability to respond to insulin, causing insulin resistance as described earlier.

Further to this, there is still controversy despite the marketing strategy that these products promote weight loss. An American study reported that those who consumed diet soft drinks were more likely to gain weight than those who continued with their sugar sweetened beverage. Animal studies have further proven the increased risk of food intake associated with the insulin response, therefore causing an increased caloric intake, increased body weight and increased adiposity. Common artificial sweeteners, such as Saccharin, have also been shown to interfere with homeostatic and normal metabolic functions. There is also some heavy debate on their cancer causing properties.

Despite what is known and not known, the controversy still exists. Majority of studies have been conducted in animals, and animals are not humans. Further exploration with well- designed, large scale randomised controlled trials among the general population are needed. My recommendation? Whether it be the diet option or the regular sugary beverage, it is not something that I would encourage either way. Health risks have been associated with both. Why not try flavouring water with slices of fresh lemon or orange, infusing water with mint leaves and lime or drinking sparkling water for the fizz.