Skip to main content

Sugar-free soda is safe

By Aaron Carroll, Special to CNN
August 15, 2013 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
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
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT