Case against ‘sugar-free soda’ (which includes both regular and diet) continues to mount

Posted by
January 23, 2014



If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know a little about how diet soda (whatever brand it might be) can be considered the opposite of ‘brain food’. Or, to be more specific, how the synthetic sweetener it almost always contains — aspartame —  is capable of literally exciting brain cells to death, especially when ingested by children or the elderly whose blood-brain barrier may not be fully functional.

Of course, you don’t hear much in the conventional media about the risk that prominent neuroscientists have long said aspartame poses to brain health. That’s because too many of the people reporting on such issues simply tend to accept at face value the ill-conceived notion that diet soda is preferable to so-called “sugary drinks” (a common misnomer they use in describing beverages containing no actual sugar, but rather the obesity-promoting artificial sweetener high fructose corn syrup, which I’ll return to in a moment).

But there have been occasional news reports that diet sodas aren’t really helping people to keep the weight off. Now, a new study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has come up with a reason for that —  yet another way that the stuff used to sweeten diet soda (which is still mainly aspartame) can ‘mess with your mind’.

According to the study’s lead author, Sara Bleich, a PhD. and associate professor with the school’s Department of Health Policy and Management, the “(a)vailable evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners, which are present in high doses in diet beverages, are associated with a greater activation of reward centers in the brain which alter the reward a person experiences from sweet tastes.”

“Another way of thinking about this,” Bleich told Rodale News, “is that for diet beverage drinkers, the brain’s sweet sensors may no longer provide a reliable gauge of energy consumption.”

This appears to be further proof that consuming either regular or diet soft drinks can subject you to a ‘double whammy’  — that is, help to make you both fat and stupid (to put it crudely).

That’s because, as noted earlier, if you’re not imbibing an aspartame-laced diet soda, you’re probably drinking one containing high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS  And according to studies done at Princeton University, Florida College of Medicine and Yale University, HFCS helps promote obesity three different ways.  (In fact, the Yale research also relates the problem to brain function by noting that fructose – especially in the form of HFCS — may contribute to weight gain and obesity because it has minimal effect on brain regions that control appetite.)

In addition, a 2012 University of California rat study found that “a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” in the words of its lead author.

When ‘tradition’ trumps science

Apparently, however, when the focus of such research is something as imprecise as “diet soda,” rather than a specific additive such as aspartame or HFCS, things can tend to become a bit muddled.

It’s bad enough that the use of the collective term  “artificial sweeteners” in the Johns Hopkins study deflects attention away from the  continued presence of aspartame as a major-league troublemaker in diet products. But what can really be a major source of confusion is when the researchers themselves fail to make a distinction between sugar and HFCS.

Consider, for example, this statement from the conclusion in the study’s abstract: “Overweight and obese adults drink more diet beverages than healthy-weight adults and consume significantly more solid-food calories and a comparable total calories than overweight and obese adults who drink SSBs.” And what, exactly, are “SSBs”? Why, “sugar-sweetened beverages,” of course.

To try to determine once and for all why a drink sweetened with HFCS continues to be characterized as a “sugar-sweetened beverage” rather than a “sugar-free” one, I made a call to Professor Bleich and put the question directly to her — noting the fact that the Food and Drug Administration had specifically ruled last year that HFCS and sugar are two different things (in rejecting a Corn Refiners Association petition to change its name to “corn sugar.”)

“In the literature,” she replied, “It’s commonly referred to as SSBs — it is the standard definition.” And as to where that standard definition originated, she admitted she had no idea.

So there’s the answer — a “standard definition” from “the literature.” It’s a bit, I suppose, like “tradition” — whether or not it makes any sense, it’s how we’ve always done it and doesn’t have to change with the times.  And if it’s accepted by academics and researchers, how can you expect reporters and politicians to stop referring to “sugary drinks”?

One thing that you may not find in the literature, however — but can still be found in a lot of people’s memory banks (assuming they haven’t been altered by ingesting HFCS) — is the fact that way back when no one had ever heard of either high fructose corn syrup or aspartame and the standard sweetener found in soft drinks was actual sugar, there was no “obesity epidemic.”