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Sugar-Free Drinks May Not Be the Right Choice, Either

Study Links Them to Premature Death

There was a collective gasp among Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi drinkers after a new study found prodigious consumers of artificially sweetened drinks were 26% more likely to die prematurely than those who rarely drank sugar-free beverages.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, followed 450,000 Europeans over 16 years and tracked mortality.

It was little surprise the authors found that people who drank two or more glasses of sugar-sweetened beverages a day were 8% more likely to die young compared to those who consumed less than one glass a month.

But the suggestion that drinking Diet Coke could be even more deadly than drinking Coca-Cola Classic--that was the big deal. 

Researchers have reported correlations between high intake of artificially sweetened beverages and premature death. Still unresolved is the causation vs. correlation question: Does consuming drinks sweetened with aspartame or saccharin harm your health or do people who consume diet drinks have other bad health habits that put them at risk of illness and early death?

“It could be that diet soda drinkers eat a lot of bacon or perhaps it’s because there are people who rationalize their unhealthy lifestyle by saying, ‘Now that I’ve had a diet soda, I can have those French fries,’” said Vasanti S. Malik, lead author of a study that found that the link between artificial sweeteners and increased mortality in women was largely inconclusive. “This is a huge study, with a half million people in 10 countries, but I don’t think it adds to what we already know.”

Concerns about artificial sweeteners have been around since the 1970s, when studies found that large quantities of saccharin caused cancer in lab rats. The FDA issued a temporary ban on the sweetener, but subsequent research found it to be safe for human consumption. Aspartame and sucralose have also been extensively studied, with little evidence that they negatively impact human health.

Still, many scientists say more research is needed to determine the long-term effects of consuming artificial sweeteners.

For consumers, the mixed messaging can be confusing. Dr. Jim Krieger, the founding executive director of Healthy Food America, an advocacy group that presses municipalities to enact soda taxes and increase consumer access to fruits and vegetables, said the new study and others like it raise more questions than they answer.

“Gosh, at this point, you probably want to go with water, tea or unsweetened coffee and not take a chance on beverages we don’t know much about,” he said. “Certainly, you don’t want to drink sugary beverages because we know that these aren’t good for you.”

Source: The New York Times, Sept. 6

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