RCPCH responds to paper on sugar free and diet drinks

Sugar-free and “diet” drinks are often seen as the healthier option - but researchers from Imperial College London have argued that they are no more helpful for maintaining a healthy weight than their full-sugar versions.

In a commentary on current research and policy into sweetened drinks, academics from Imperial College London and two Brazilian universities (University of Sao Paulo and Federal University of Pelotas) argued that sugar-free versions of drinks may be no better for weight loss or preventing weight gain than their full sugar counterparts, and may also be detrimental to the environment.

They say there is no solid evidence to support the claims that sugar free drinks are any better for health or prevent obesity and obesity related diseases such as type 2 diabetes. And despite having no or very little energy content, there is a concern that they might trigger compensatory food intake by 'stimulating sweet taste receptors'. This, together with the consumers’ awareness of the low-calorie content, may result in overconsumption of other foods, thus contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related health problems.

Responding to the paper published today, ‘Sugar-free and “diet” drinks no better for healthy weight than full sugar drink’, Professor Russell Viner, Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

“As this paper acknowledges, the effect of artificially sweetened beverages on weight and other health outcomes, especially for children, is inconclusive. And although plausible, many of the researchers arguments are theoretical and cannot be substantiated with existing data.

“What we do know though is that regardless of any impact on weight, reducing sugar intake will have beneficial effects on dental health which is particularly important in children. Currently 25% of five-year-olds have obvious tooth decay, with an average of more than three missing, decayed or filled teeth. Government’s fizzy drinks tax comes into force next year and with robust monitoring, we should be able to see what happens regarding the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and substitution effects, as well as the impact of weight and obesity.

“No fizzy drink, diet, sugar free or full fat provide any nutritional value whatsoever so in reality, it is better to avoid them altogether. However, we know that people like fizzy drinks and will continue to drink them if they are available, so until we have conclusive research on the health implications, I would suggest opting for a sugar free alternative as we know this is most certainly better for children’s health.”