Are Zero-Calorie Drinks Ever Really Good For You?

Find out what's really in your favorite zero-calorie drink, and what these mystery ingredients do to your body.

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According to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 percent of Americans drink diet beverages on any given day. Many of these products boast weight-loss capabilities, but how true is that claim? The answer is a subject of controversy.

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Manufacturers of zero-calorie beverages have very different answers from those of diet advocates, which is why it’s so important to do your own research on the products you’re eating and drinking. Here’s a quick introduction to the wild world of zero-calorie beverages.

Searching for the Truth About Zero-Calorie Drinks

It isn’t easy to find information on the effects of zero-calorie artificial sweeteners. Many of the published studies reach conflicting conclusions. One paper will find a direct correlation between artificial sweeteners and weight gain, while another states that there’s no link to obesity at all. How do you know whom to trust?

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The key is to pay attention to who is conducting which study. Reporter Markham Heid discussed the conflict of interest in sweetener research in an article for Vice:

“One analysis from the Center for Behavioral Medicine at Northeastern Ohio University found that 100 percent of industry-funded aspartame studies concluded that the sugar substitute was safe, while 92 percent of independent studies came to just the opposite conclusion. Another meta-study, this one from Johns Hopkins, determined that industry funding and study authors’ ‘financial conflicts’ introduced bias into their flattering or benign findings on artificial sweeteners.”

It’s hard to find the truth when financial interests skew the science. Sifting through study after study quickly becomes overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. Another way to learn about what you consume is to study the specific ingredients that manufacturers use to sweeten zero-calorie drinks.

Tracking the Artificial Sweetener Culprits

There’s a wide range of artificial sweeteners—and even a few natural ones—on the market that claim to be safe zero-calorie options. Although these sound like miracle products, don’t celebrate just yet.

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If you’re a regular purchaser of bottled beverages, it’s best to know the side effects of what you’re putting in your body.

Stevia is a popular plant-based sugar substitute. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar and naturally calorie free. While this may sound like the Holy Grail we’ve all been waiting for, we’re still uncovering parts of the stevia story.

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The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated steviol glycosides, the active ingredient in the stevia plant, as “generally recognized as safe.” However, whole-leaf and unprocessed stevia extracts are not legal to use as sweeteners in the United States.

Sucralose is another well-known artificial sweetener found in many processed foods and drinks. Studies suggest that regular consumption of this product can lead to more sugar cravings instead of satisfying your sweet tooth. Doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose?

Artificial Sweeteners Altering Your Chemistry

Despite the murkiness of the research, it’s clear that artificial sweeteners aren’t the solution to the obesity epidemic. A 2013 study found that people who drank artificially sweetened beverages had a 47 percent increase in body mass index (BMI) over those who did not. Scientists now believe these sweeteners alter how our bodies perceive and react to sugar, which is not good.

When we consume artificial sweeteners, our taste buds think they’re sugar, causing the body to release insulin. But the lack of calories and natural sugar molecules confuses the body. This confusion eventually interferes with regular insulin production.

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Besides, as researcher Susan Swithers outlines in a 2013 study, frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause a lot of the same problems as sugar. Swithers found a link between sugar substitutes and weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Indulging in a soda every once in a while won’t hurt. But if you drink artificially sweetened products every day, try cutting back. Water or plain club soda are the healthiest drink alternatives, and they won’t cause side effects. What could be sweeter than that?

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