7th May 2019
Damning proof there’s no such thing as a ‘healthy’ fizzy drink!
Britain is in for quite possibly the hottest summer on record, if the latest forecast from the Met Office is anything to go by. And as temperatures rise, so will sales of ice-cold beverages — but if you imagine cooling off with a can of your favourite fizzy drink, you might want to choose carefully.
The good news is that they generally contain less sugar — the Government’s tax on sugary drinks, introduced a year ago to tackle obesity — seems to be weaning us off fizzy drinks packed with sugar (adding 24p per litre for the most sugary drinks, see box, opposite).
Many companies have cut the sugar content of their drinks by 50 per cent or more — for instance Irn Bru slashed its sugar content from 10.3g per 100ml to 4.7g (that’s around six teaspoons per 330ml can, to three teaspoons). Meanwhile consumption of low-sugar and diet drinks has risen.
The bad news is that there is increasing evidence that the artificial sweeteners in the sugar-free alternatives may themselves be linked with a range of serious conditions, including stroke, heart disease and fertility problems. And there’s equally bad news for those of us sticking to sugary drinks despite the higher price, as there is increasing evidence the sweet stuff may be even worse for us than first thought — and according to one recent study, even directly fuel cancer.
A FIFTH OF OUR SUGAR IS FROM DRINKS
The NHS says more than 20 per cent of the added sugar in adult diets comes from soft drinks and fruit juice — and as much as a third for children aged between 11 and 18.
And while the sugar in fruit and dairy products comes with beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre, the sugar in soft drinks is simply empty calories.
But neither the reduction in sugar levels nor the shift towards sugar-free fizzy drinks prompted by the sugar tax may be quite as healthy as they first appear.
Manufacturers who have reformulated sugary drinks haven’t simply taken out sugar. To keep customers sweet they have substituted sugar with artificial sweeteners designed to mimic the sweetness of sugar without the calories.
In February researchers at the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York revealed they had found a link between low-calorie, artificially sweetened fruit drinks and sodas and a range of serious outcomes.
For instance, these drinks were linked to a four times greater risk of stroke in African-Americans, while other women, of normal weight and without a previous history of heart disease or diabetes, had 1.24 times the risk of premature death from all causes.
Writing in the journal Stroke, the researchers, who tracked the health of more than 80,000 postmenopausal women over a decade, reported that ‘consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with increased risk of . . . stroke, coronary heart disease and all-cause mortality’.
They added that while more work is urgently needed to both prove and understand the link, ‘it is prudent to try to wean oneself off these drinks in the meantime’.
Speaking to Good Health, co-author and associate professor of epidemiology and population health Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani asked: ‘Are we stumbling into unforeseen problems with artificial sweeteners?’
ARE SWEETENERS A BETTER CHOICE?
There is no clear answer yet because there are so many different types of sweetener, each of which will have different effects on the body,’ said Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani. ‘Some may be harmful, some may not be. But we simply don’t know yet.’
Artificial sweeteners trick our taste buds into thinking we’re eating sugar. Because the body can’t break them down in the way it does natural sugar, sweeteners simply pass through the body. As a result, the body derives no energy, or calories, from them.
What is unclear, however, is how sweeteners might be having other, negative impacts of which they are suspected.
Ironically, other research suggests diet drinks could even be fuelling, rather than fighting, the obesity epidemic. Drinking more than 21 artificially sweetened drinks a week doubled the risk of becoming overweight or obese, according to a 2008 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center that looked at 3,682 adults over a decade.
In the journal Obesity researchers speculated that sweeteners whet the appetite for other sugary foods. More recent work has raised concerns about their potential impact on unborn babies’ health.
A study in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research International in February looked the effects of artificial sweeteners on mouse embryos.
One group of pregnant mice were given 50mg of sweetener per kg of body weight from the first day of pregnancy until the third week of nursing. Compared with mice given no sweeteners, malformations of mammary glands were seen in foetuses at 18 weeks, while four-week-old mice given sweeteners suffered ‘a decrease in the length of the body, limbs, and tail’.
Another study, published this month in the journal Metabolic Brain Disease, raised concerns about the impact of sweeteners on brain development.
Animal studies use far larger quantities of sweeteners than are consumed by humans. But if such effects are real, it’s a question of what quantity of sweeteners might have the same impact on us.
CONTROVERSIAL LINK WITH CANCER
IN addition to the more obvious consequences of consuming too much sugar — obesity and type 2 diabetes — there are other, hidden health costs.
In March researchers at the Meyer Cancer Centre at Weill Cornell medical school in the U.S. announced they were starting to assess whether sugar ‘feeds cancer’. It is a controversial idea but the centre’s director, Dr Lewis Cantley, who hasn’t consumed refined sugar ‘in decades’, believes that a lot of cancers are ‘addicted’ to sugar.
Dr Cantley — previously a professor at Harvard Medical School — writing in the journal Science in March said he had found that mice predisposed to colon cancer given doses of sugar equivalent to one can of soda a day in a human developed larger tumours.
The same month, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health concluded that as well as weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, the more sugary drinks a person consumed the more their risk of early death from any cause increased. The link with heart disease was particularly strong.
The study, in the journal Circulation, looked at 80,000 women and 37,000 men in the U.S. over three decades. Those who drank two or more cans of sugary drinks a day had a 31 per cent higher risk of early death from cardiovascular disease — and each further drink was linked with an astonishing 10 per cent increased risk.
But there was an alarming aside in the paper, even more worrying for those who may be turning to artificially sweetened ‘diet’ drinks, or reformulated sugary drinks, as a result of the sugar tax.
Although the researchers found replacing sugary drinks with ones artificially sweetened was generally linked with a ‘moderately lower risk of early death’, they also found women — not men — who drank four or more diet drinks a week had a slightly increased risk of premature death from all causes.
‘Diet beverages seem fine at modest consumption levels, and would be a good substitute for heavy sugary beverages,’ says lead researcher and nutritionist Vasanti Malik.
‘But it’s possible that the policies targeting sugary beverage reduction could result in higher consumption of low-calorie sweeteners and we need more research on potential health consequences.’
Could this include an effect on fertility? Last year Brazilian fertility researchers reported that women undergoing intracytoplasmic sperm injection — a treatment for male infertility in which the sperm is injected into the woman’s egg — were more likely to have distorted eggs and embryos if they consumed three or more regular or artificially sweetened drinks.
A SERIOUS RISK OF LASTING HARM
None of this has been taken into account in the global rush by governments to counter obesity by driving consumers towards artificially sweetened drinks.
Action on Sugar, a charity formed by specialists concerned with sugar’s effects on health, says it recommends both a lowering of sugar and a reduction in the use of artificial sweeteners as a replacement.
While evidence of harm that might be caused by sweeteners is ‘limited’, says, Katharine Jenner, a nutritionist and Action on Sugar’s campaign director, ‘potential harms cannot be excluded. Drinks companies who have taken action to reduce sugar should now think about reducing sweeteners, too.’
The soft-drinks industry robustly rejects the recent research suggestions. Commenting on the February study on mouse embyros, Gavin Partington, director-general at the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), told Good Health: ‘The overwhelming evidence contradicts the findings of this study. Sweeteners can and do provide a safe alternative to reduce sugar in food and drink and help people manage their weight.
‘They have been analysed by health authorities, including the European Food Safety Authority, and all judge them to be safe.’
As for their potential to ‘whet’ our appetite for sweet foods, he added: ‘Low and no-calorie sweeteners give consumers the choice to enjoy sweetness while managing sugars and calories.’
The BSDA told Good Health: ‘The soft drinks industry has a role to play in helping to tackle obesity,’ adding that it’s ‘the only category to have already hit Public Health England’s calorie-reduction target of 20 per cent by 2020’; consumer research had shown ‘between March 2015 and March 2019, sugar intake from soft drinks in the UK has fallen by 29.8 per cent’.
Coca-Cola UK says: ‘In the past five years, we have reduced the sugar people consume from our drinks by 26 per cent. All the ingredients we use are safe and low-calorie sweeteners are researched ingredients with scientific studies confirming their safety.’
An evaluation of the impact of the sugar tax is being carried out by Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research, but is unlikely to have answers for more than a year. There are no plans to look at the effects of the switch to artificial sweeteners.
HOW THE SUGAR TAX IS WORKING?
Introduced a year ago, the sugar tax was designed to curb the growing problem of obesity, as well as tooth decay in children, by putting a levy on sugary soft drinks.
Fizzy drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml are taxed 24p per litre, those with between 5g and 8g are taxed 18p per litre.
Many companies reduced the sugar content of their drinks by half or more to avoid having to hike prices and risk losing customers. Some manufacturers simply cut the size of their bottles while Coca-Cola and Pepsi decided not to reformulate their most popular drinks and took the tax hit — the price of a can rose from about 70p to 78p.
A year on, and there has been an 11 per cent reduction in sugar per 100ml of fizzy drinks consumed, the campaign group Action on Sugar says.
People are also buying more drinks that have sugar levels below the cut-off of 5g of sugar per 100ml, including diet versions — but which, of course, contain unadvertised quantities of artificial sweeteners.
Source: Daily Mail
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