For decades now, society has been experiencing a love affair with soft drinks, laden with sugar. Over this time, we have seen a very strong marketing campaign by the big players in the industry ensuring us all that our life goes so much better if combined with consuming particular types of soft drink.

I remember as a child, the state government supplied milk to all public schools encouraging us to consume this as our primary source of fluid. These days, it is not unusual for children, teenagers and young adults, (not to mention some older people) to consume at least one soft drink per day as part of their regular fluid intake. To encourage and maintain this habit in many people, the beverage companies introduced the word “diet” on the side of bottles and cans with the strong inference that consuming this form of drink may have health benefits. Let’s face it, we’ve all been bombarded with the importance of following a good diet, so if this is written on the side of the packet, bottle or a can then whatever is in that container must be good for us!

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So, is this reality? Are diet drinks really that beneficial and do they provide a healthier alternative to the sugar laden soft drinks that in the view of many health professionals have contributed to many modern health problems and in particular the alarming rates of diabetes and obesity in our community.

I have often spoken about what I call white death. This includes:

1. Sugar/Salt

2. White bread

3. White rice

4. Australian and American pasta

5. Potatoes

It is estimated that the average can of soft drink contains around 10 teaspoons of sugar per drink. A number of recent trials have suggested that consuming one standard soft drink per day has been associated with the following health problems:

1. 50% increased risk for Type II diabetes

2. Marked increase in dental decay

3. Seven times the rate of bone fracture

4. Increasing incidence of behavioural abnormalities in children, adolescents and young adults because of the high sugar content and the caffeine seen in cola based drinks and especially the very high doses in energy drinks

5. Potential cancer risk, especially with cola based drinks

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Therefore, the diet alternatives of soft drinks must be healthier! Well, it certainly appears that this is not the case. Firstly, the concentration of phosphoric acid (cleverly called food acid by some companies), which contributes to the bone & teeth issues, is identical in the diet and non-diet drinks. Secondly, the cola colourings that have been linked to cancer is no different as well. In reality, this leaves us with the question as to whether artificial sweeteners are healthier than the 10 teaspoons of sugar in a standard can of soft drink. A recent study from the Imperial College London in the United Kingdom certainly suggests that this is not the case. This report firstly makes the disturbing observation that sugar sweetened beverages such as soft drinks make up a third of the total sugar intake amongst teenagers. In the United States alone, these account for half of the added sugar in a standard American diet. Because of the concerns around diabetes & obesity, there is increasing consumption of artificially sweetened beverages in children and adults.

It appears, however, that artificially sweetened beverages still have a profound effect on metabolism by stimulating taste receptors which then leads to increasing appetite and abnormal secretion of gut hormones. The other concern around this pathway is that the fewer calories in artificially sweetened beverages, because all of these mechanisms are switched on, lead to increasing consumption of other foods and thus a higher caloric intake. The end result of all these mechanisms being just as worrying rates of diabetes & obesity in people who consume artificially sweetened beverages and thus no significant health benefits. Randomised controlled trials of artificially sweetened beverages have shown minimal to no effects on weight loss whatsoever. You may be shocked to hear that the trials that show any positive benefits for artificially sweetened beverages have been sponsored by the beverage industry.

I believe the answer here is very straightforward. Health professionals should be discouraging both children and adults from consuming sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages. The devastating effects on health from the combination of all the chemicals in these drinks, in my view, makes these forms of fluid something that should be consumed either very infrequently or not all. The major epidemic of the 21st-century is Diabesity i.e. the combination of diabetes & obesity. It appears that both sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages are contributing equally to this devastating problem. With all of the other associated health issues with any form of fizzy drink, I would call for a ban on energy drinks and a distinct warning against soft drinks about these potential health issues.