The Times

Rosie Taylor

Gerry Gajadharsingh writes:

“I have blogged about this before, but this is too important an issue to not emphasise the point. So, it’s another un-intended consequence of UK health policy. All those commercial drinks companies out there are probably pulling their hair out! Imagine that, drinking diet drinks (with artificial sweeteners) is more harmful than drinking drinks with lots of sugar, who would have thought, actually I would and have done so for many years.

 The science is out there, sadly many people are simply too busy to read it or to understand it. But it’s no excuse for companies who have the resources to properly research their products nor for the government to go with the flow and enact laws that may end up causing more problems in the long term.”

They have been touted as the healthy option for decades, but a study suggests that two diet drinks a day could significantly increase the risk of dying early.

Consuming artificially sweetened drinks every day increased the chance of dying young by about a quarter, a study of more than 450,000 people in Europe found.

The research, led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, found an association between at least one glass of any kind of soft drink a day and early death. However, in what they called a striking finding, both artificially sweetened and sugary soft drinks appeared to have a significant association with poor heart health.

The research is the third study this year and the largest to date to find links between diet drinks and early death. It followed participants with an average age of 51 for about 16 years, during which time more than 41,000 died.

Researchers found that death rates from any cause were 26 per cent higher among people who had two or more diet drinks a day, compared with those who drank less than one a month. Rates were 8 per cent higher among those who drank full-sugar soft drinks twice daily. The findings were adjusted to take account of participants’ weight, activity and diet.

Neil Murphy, who led the study, said: “The striking observation in our study was that we found positive associations for both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened soft drinks with risk of all-cause deaths.”

He said it was unclear why there was such a strong association between diet drinks and early death, but previous studies suggested artificial sweeteners may trigger biological actions in the body in a similar way to sugar, such as increasing blood sugar and insulin levels. Researchers also suggested that it was possible people who were already overweight or unhealthy had switched to diet drinks, although the results showed the association persisted even among people of a healthy weight.

“Additional studies are now needed to examine the long-term health consequences of specific artificial sweeteners that are commonly used in soft drinks, such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium,” Dr Murphy said.

The introduction of the soft drink levy, known as the sugar tax in Britain last year, led many manufacturers to change the recipe of soft drinks to reduce their sugar content, often by replacing them with artificial sweeteners.

Dr Murphy said that evidence from his study and others suggested that people should avoid all types of soft drinks. “It would probably be prudent to limit consumption of all soft drinks and replace with a healthier alternative, such as water,” he said.

As the study was observational it could not prove whether drinks caused the early deaths. However, previous research has found similar links between high diet drink consumption and a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

The latest research was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine to coincide with the European Society of Cardiology congress in Paris.

Mitchell Elkind, president-elect of the American Heart Association, said that people should “minimise or completely eliminate” consumption of both sugary and artificially sweetened soft drinks.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: “Soft drinks are safe to consume as part of a balanced diet. The soft drinks industry recognises it has a role to play in helping to tackle obesity, which is why we have led the way in calorie and sugar reduction.