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Sugar-free drinks not healthier

Sugar-free and diet drinks are often seen as the healthier option, but researchers have this week warned that they do not promote healthy weight.

“A common perception, which may be influenced by industry marketing, is that because ‘diet’ drinks have no sugar, they must be healthier and aid weight loss when used as a substitute for full sugar versions,” explained Professor Christopher Millett, a senior investigator from Imperial’s School of Public Health. “However we found no solid evidence to support this.”

In a commentary published in the journal PLoS Medicine, Professor Millett and experts from the University of Sao Paulo and Federal University of Pelotas (both in Brazil) outlined current evidence of the health effects of consuming artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs).

“Despite having no or very little energy content, there is a concern that ASBs might trigger compensatory food intake by stimulating sweet taste receptors,” they noted. “This, together with the consumers’ awareness of the low-calorie content of ASBs, may result in overconsumption of other foods, thus contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related health problems.”

They also warned that the production of ASBs has a hefty environmental footprint, with up to 300 litres of water required to produce just half a litre of soft drink.

ASBs currently comprise a quarter of the global sweetened beverages market, but they are not taxed or regulated to the same extent as their sugary counterparts.

Indeed, the UK government is currently pressing ahead with its plans to introduce a levy on sugar-sweetened drinks next year. Manufacturers will look to ASBs as a way to avoid the charge but this may not produce the health benefits policymakers are hoping for.

“Far from helping to solve the global obesity crisis, ASBs may be contributing to the problem and should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet,” the authors of the new paper warned.