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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT