Skip to main content

Sugar-free soda is safe

By Aaron Carroll, Special to CNN
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Thu August 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Coco-Cola is launching a new ad campaign to defend artificial sweeteners in diet soda
  • Aaron Carroll: It's no surprise, since sales of diet soda is dropping more than regular soda
  • He says there's little evidence to support the idea that artificial sweeteners pose health risk
  • Carroll: Given a choice, it's still better to choose sugar-free soda over sugared soda

Editor's note: Dr. Aaron E. Carroll is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of the university's Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

(CNN) -- For some time, sugary soft drinks have been under attack as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic plaguing the nation, if not the world. As a result, sales of regular soft drinks have been dropping. Apparently, sales of diet soft drinks have taken even more of a hit.

So it comes as no surprise that Coca-Cola is planning to launch a new ad campaign defending -- and promoting -- its diet soft drinks.

The ads are going to focus on the safety of artificial sweeteners, or aspartame, in diet soda. Coca-Cola must believe that some of the fall in sales is due to concerns over the health effects of artificial sweeteners.

Aaron Carroll
Aaron Carroll

Here's the thing: There's a lot of science out there, and it's hard to say that aspartame holds much of a health risk.

Aspartame was first approved for use in 1981, but it wasn't until 15 years later that health concerns showed up. In 1996, a research paper showed that there had been a recent increase in brain tumors and hypothesized that this might be due to aspartame. Mind you, it didn't prove that was so. But the potential link was all the media needed to go crazy. TV shows, magazine articles, and newspapers all questioned whether the artificial sweetener was safe.

Further work using data from the National Cancer Institute showed that the increase in brain tumors really began in 1973, long before aspartame was introduced. Moreover, the increases in incidence of cancer were seen primarily in the elderly, which as a group, was not the major consumer of diet soda.

And there's more. A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial showed that aspartame didn't affect memory, behavior or mood. And a study published in 2006 followed more than 285,000 men and almost 190,000 women and couldn't detect any relationship between aspartame and brain or blood cancer.

Some research has shown that drinking artificially sweetened beverages doesn't promote weight loss, or even promotes weight gain. More often than not, this is because people wind up overcompensating for the calorie savings they think they're getting by switching beverages (think of the person who orders dessert as a reward for having diet soda). But in those cases it's not the diet beverage that caused weight gain; it's dieters' behavior.

You can even find people who postulate that artificially sweetened beverages trick the brain into wanting more calories. There's really no proof of that. Finally, some will claim that diet drinks will cause the brain to release insulin, which can change your metabolism and make you hungry. That's a bit hard to swallow. That's like saying if you ate sugar-dense food that tasted terrible, it would trick your brain into not releasing insulin. It's the pancreas that releases insulin anyway, not the brain.

The bottom line is that artificially sweetened beverages are safe. That doesn't mean you should drink tons of them. My wife and I limit our kids' consumption of soda to caffeine-free, diet types. But we don't let our children drink them every day. We stress moderation in everything.

The fact that Coca-Cola and other companies are seeing sales drop across the board is likely to create a backlash against artificial beverages in general. It's hard to get too upset about that, since our consumption of them was likely too high to begin with.

But we shouldn't make the perfect the enemy of the good. Given a choice between a sugared soda and a sugar-free soda, I'd rather see my kids choose the latter every time. There's an abundance of evidence that the sugar is contributing to health problems; there's not much conclusive evidence that artificial sweeteners in diet sodas are doing the same.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Carroll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT