by Marion Nestle
May 8 2013

New studies on artificial sweeteners: a puzzle reports two new studies on artificial sweeteners.

The first report says that artificially sweetened sodas do not lead to increased sugar or calorie consumption.

Our study study does not provide evidence to suggest that a short-term consumption of DBs [diet beverages], compared with water, increases preferences for sweet foods and beverages.

If this result proves repeatable, it leaves open the question of why the prevalence of obesity has gone up in parallel with increasing consumption of diet sodas (which it has).  

So how come diet sodas don’t seem to help people maintain weight, on average?  We still don’t know.

The second report is about a study that links diet sodas to type 2 diabetes.   In a study following 66,000 women for 14 years, it found both sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and artificially sweetened beverage consumption to be associated with increased type-2 diabetes risk. 

How come?  We still don’t know.

One thing seems pretty clear from such studies: diet drinks don’t appear to do much good for most people and aren’t any better for health than regular sodas.

Water, anyone?

  • Francesco

    One of the potential explanation is that artificial sweeteners do increase insulinemic response (although they shouldn’t). So high GI even though they contain no sucrose.

  • Denny

    Perhaps diet drinks don’t change the desire for sweet items at all, up or down, so people’s bad dietary habits – and it’s likely those who feel the need to drink diet versions have a bad diet when it comes to sugar – continue even with diet drinks.

    The first study finds diet drinks don’t increase desire for sweet items, but people who want a soft drink and feel the need to drink diet items (often because of existing weight issues) probably already have a strong desire for sweet items. So they they cut out sugar from diet drinks, but continue consuming it in large quantities in items where there isn’t a sugar-free alternative available. This may then explain why in the second study the diet drinks are linked to type 2 diabetes.

    It would be a mistake to think of those drinking diet drinks as healthier versions of regular soda drinkers and expect improvements, when it’s probable bad health made them switch to diet drinks in the first place and some of that bad behaviour may well continue even with diet drinks.

  • Carl

    This might tie in with (or echo) Francesco’s comment, but I think it’s foolish to assume that just because something doesn’t have calories, that our body doesn’t respond to it in a similar way that it would to something just as sweet (regular soda).

    If you don’t think of it in terms of your body responding to the calories, and think of it as your body responding to a hyper sweetened beverage, it would be logical for your pancreas to start pumping out insulin, increasing the chances that whatever glucose you have in your system gets stored as fat instead of burned as energy.

    Stuff tastes like butt. Either way.

  • moreporkplease

    There are many Type 2 diabetics who report artificially sweetened soft drinks like Pepsi Max causes blood sugar anomalies when they actually test every 15 minutes. Thus I think Carl above may be onto something – the body evolved to pump insulin for things that taste sweet. So once the taste buds register “sweet,” the insulin may start to flow despite the lack of glucose hitting the system later.

  • If this result proves repeatable, it leaves open the question of why the prevalence of obesity has gone up in parallel with increasing consumption of diet sodas (which it has).

    How long can you ignore the obvious/occam’s razor explanation that obesity is increasing because food is more affordable and transportation is more affordable so we walk less and work is less physical.

  • Denny

    @Floccina, a very valid point. It’s also possible obesity is rising in parallel to diet drinks because diet drinks are perhaps a response to the obesity crisis. They exist because some people feel the need to diet, so it’s not surprising they’re become more popular as more people become obese and need to diet.

  • What use is a short-term study of something that people are exposed to for all their lives? Is obesity a short-term problem?

    Diet drinks exist because people are told that cutting calories is the key to weight loss. Perhaps they serve to exaggerate the caloric deficit IN SOME PEOPLE, and highlight it as a deficiency of carbohydrates.
    What happens to populations is largely irrelevant. What matters is what happens to people who get fat, when they get fat.

    I am suspicious about the dietary changes in the first study. This looks as if participation in the study was producing a strong moderating influence on dietary choices, an influence which would not be present in people consuming diet soda out in society.

  • Wena

    I suspect that the answer lays in the people selected for the research. It’s probably not a broad enough representation of the population at large who are most at risk because it’s not targeting the group that the beverage companies are marketing out too.

    I’m reading the book you recommended “Salt Sugar Fat.” In there, the beverage industries are targetting the “heavy users” and children-young adults with the aim of getting them into the habit of eventually becoming the “heavy users”. If the research didn’t have people in this category, it would be hard to find the linkage because of the heavy targetted marketing towards these user groups. Since diabetes is a long-term situation, could it be that the heavy users are putting their body through prolong exposure of sugar that can give them Type 2 diabetes?

    The 1st report had Nestle as a collaborator. Oh my…Also a small sample size.

    2nd report is larger sample size and over a longer duration.

    And yes, water. 🙂 Love it!

  • Jaypea

    In agreement with many of the comments posted, I would like to mention that perhaps the locations in which most diet beverages are purchased and consumed (Fast Food Chains/ Liquor Stores/ Gas Station), could be a larger contributing factor to the widespread prevalence of obesity and diabetes mellitus than artificially sweetened beverages. The caloric overload as well as blood sugar spikes from refined carbohydrates and other heavily processed foods that dominate these locations, could be masking the neutrality of diet beverage consumption and appear to make diet drinks look worse than they may actually be for our health. With that being said, I’ll have 2 cheeseburgers, a large french fry, and… uh, well I’m watching what I eat.. so how about a Diet Coke.

  • Francesco

    Thanks Nigel, very interesting. Yet see

  • This is very interesting. May I know who funded these studies? I believe that the credibility of these studies also relies on the people behind it. This is the first stage of their marketing strategy.

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  • @Francesco: The anticipation of food (with sham feeding) produces a cephalic phase insulin response. See

  • Howie G

    Perfect example how it’s a person’s entire lifestyle – beyond the beverage they drink – that dictates one’s health. Why do those that drink diet sodas get fat and type 2 diabetes? Why not simply look to seed if these people are eating enough fruits and vegetables and exercising. To me – this study proves that a single bullet solution – focusing on one food – does nothing for the health and wellness of our society.

    This is epi research – no cause and effects can be drawn from these types of studies. Remember – it was this type of research that led to an old thinking that coffee causes cancer – until they realized that people tend to smoke cigarettes when they drink coffee!

  • I think I’ll just stick with water myself. Can’t go wrong that way.

  • Calorie Control Council

    Of note, increases in water sales correlate with increases in obesity, but that doesn’t mean water causes obesity. The correlation between diet soda consumption and obesity or diabetes is likely due to reverse causality; it is more likely that individuals who were already experiencing health issues switched to diet drinks to improve their health outcomes rather than the alternative. At least a dozen human studies have demonstrated that low-calorie sweeteners may assist individuals in losing weight and/or maintaining weight loss. And, numerous human studies have demonstrated that low-calorie sweeteners do not significantly affect either first or second phase insulin levels, as others have alleged.

    Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD, LD
    Calorie Control Council

  • Anthro

    @Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD, LD

    There is rarely a shortage of unsupported ideas posted here, always presented as common knowledge.

    “What happens to populations is irrelevant..”–that’s got to be today’s winner.

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  • Thanks Nigel for sharing, very interesting.

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  • Pat

    I find that artificial sweeteners up set my digestive system so I avoid them like the plague.

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