(fashion) They are in thousands of products we slip into our grocery baskets each week — everything from ‘diet’ colas, soft drinks and yoghurts to chewing gum and toothpaste to slimming ready meals, cakes, ice creams and desserts.
You’ll find them in sachets to sweeten your tea and coffee. If you pick up any product labelled ‘sugar-free’, ‘reduced sugar’, or ‘low calorie’, it’s almost certain to contain them.
Yet this week the World Health Organisation delivered a bitter verdict on artificial sweeteners, with a study showing that just two glasses of diet drink a day increases the risk of early death.
Coca-Cola says that, ‘with over 200 studies to support its safety, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested ingredients in the world. Its safety has been validated time and time again, including by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013’ (file image)
The research, involving more than 450,000 adults in ten countries, revealed that the daily consumption of all soft drinks was linked to a higher risk of dying young. But an early death was significantly more likely with diet drinks — the ones that qualify for a green ‘traffic light’ label from the Government, meaning they are supposedly healthy because of their low sugar content.
So who should we believe? The World Health Organisation or the Government, which advises us that artificial sweeteners are good for us. To answer the question, we have to look at exactly what these sweeteners are.
Most are chemically synthesised food additives known as high-intensity sweeteners. They are compounds designed to elicit the same response from receptors on the tongue as the ‘sweet’ flavour we get from sugar. And they are hundreds of times more powerful.
These hyper-intense synthetic sweeteners found in fizzy drinks might warp our palates, to the point that we no longer enjoy eating foods that aren’t so sweet (file image)
In 2013, a study of more than 66,000 women over 14 years found that those who drank artificially sweetened soft drinks had a higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes than those drinking sugar-sweetened ones (file image)
Hidden sweeteners are 100 times more potent than standard sugar and this means people should not be fooled by the 'sugar-free' labels (file image)
The trouble is that concerns over their safety simply will not go away — even though food and drink manufacturers and national regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) insist they are safe.
For instance, the U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods Market refuses to stock products containing any synthetic sweetener. As it says on its website, listing the sweeteners it scorns: ‘No saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame or acesulfame-k. We don’t allow it! All of these are synthetic compounds produced through complex chemical processes... not so appetising, huh’.
And that’s before some scientific studies have suggested that artifical sweeteners can cause brain damage, liver and lung cancer, brain lesions, and neurological and hormone disorders.
In 2017, a U.S. study of 2,888 people found that consumption of soft drinks containing artificial sweeteners was associated with a higher risk of dementia and stroke. It found no such increased risk from sugar-sweetened drinks. Other research flags up that artificial sweeteners could be worse for health than sugar. In 2013, a study of more than 66,000 women over 14 years found that those who drank artificially sweetened soft drinks had a higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes than those drinking sugar-sweetened ones.
One of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners — found in Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Sprite Zero, among other drinks — is aspartame.
Weight-for-weight it contains the same number of calories as sugar — four calories per gram — but it has been chemically engineered to be 200 times sweeter which means you only need a touch for any foodstuff or drink to taste sweet. Little wonder its use is so widespread. It is said to be one of the most rigorously tested food additives ever, and after what appeared to be a stringent assessment of its safety, aspartame was given a clean bill of health in 1994 when European regulators lifted restrictions on its use in the EU.
Sprite and Fanta are two fizzy drinks popular with children and studies have found accumulating evidence to suggest that people who consume these sugar substitutes regularly are also more likely to gain excessive