Sugar-free drink study slammed by scientists

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

Sugar-free soft drink alternatives should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet, the study claims
Sugar-free soft drink alternatives should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet, the study claims

Related tags Nutrition

A study that suggests sugar-free and diet drinks play no role in helping people lose weight is unhelpful and ignores the evidence base, scientists and industry lobby groups claim.

The paper, published in the journal PLoS Medicine​ by researchers at Imperial College London and two universities in Brazil, found that far from helping to solve the global obesity crisis, the characteristics and consumption patterns of artificially-sweetened beverages made them a potential risk factor for highly prevalent chronic diseases.

It argued that the absence of evidence to support the role of artificially-sweetened beverages preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on other long-term effects on health meant they should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.

The study also highlighted the potential for conflicts of interest with industry-sponsored research. It claimed systematic reviews sponsored by food or beverage companies were more likely to conclude that there was no positive association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and obesity.

Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London dismissed the paper as an opinion piece, rather than a systematic review of the evidence.

‘Not on the basis of the scientific methods’

He claimed it refuted a previously published systematic review “that showed modest weight loss when full sugar drinks were replaced with artificially sweetened beverages, because that review was industry funded, not on the basis of the scientific methods used”​.

Naveed Sattar, professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow, claimed he did not agree with the suggestion that diet drinks were no better than sugary drinks in terms of body weight. 

He said: “While I agree the evidence base in terms of proper trials comparing sugary drinks with diet drinks are lacking for real end-points like weight or heart disease, intuitively a drink that contains lots of calories (ie sugary drinks) versus one that contains few or no calories (ie diet drinks) must be worse for health given clear adverse effects on dental health and clear gain of calories and so weight gain potential.  suggest otherwise would be irresponsible.”

Susan Jebb, professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, said while the paper reasonably concludes”​ that the evidence that they are specifically beneficial in controlling obesity is limited, it did not consider their use as a “harm reduction”​ strategy.

She added that there was evidence artificially-sweetened beverages were better for health than a sugary alternative.

Help manage weight

Gavin Partington, director general at the British Soft Drinks Association said that, contrary to the claims made in the article, scientific research showed that low calorie sweeteners helped consumers manage their weight.

He added: “At a time when we are trying to encourage people to reduce their overall calorie intake it is extremely unhelpful that products which contain no sugar, let alone calories, are demonised without evidence.”

Meanwhile, children have been found to consume half their daily recommended sugar intake at breakfast time, according to a survey conducted for Public Health England’s (PHE’s) Change4Life campaign.

Children in England consume more than 11g of sugar at breakfast time alone, almost three sugar cubes, the survey revealed.

The recommended daily maximum is no more than five cubes of sugar for four to six-year-olds and no more than six cubes for seven to 10-year-olds per day. By the end of the day, children have consumed more than three times these recommendations.

PHE’s new Change4Life campaign urges parents to ‘Be Food Smart’ and take more control of their children’s diets.

A Be Food Smart app has been developed to highlight just how much sugar, saturated fat and salt can be found in everyday food and drink that their children consume.

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