Last week I was surprised to read a piece in the New York Times entitled “If You Drink Soda, Choose Artificially Sweetened,” by Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. In it, Carroll purports to lay out all of the health arguments against both artificial sweeteners and sugar and then, as the headline reveals, he comes down squarely on the side of the former. Carroll is so sure of his conclusion, he tells Times readers, that he allows his own kids to drink four to five sodas a week, most of them artificially sweetened.
What troubled me most about Carroll’s piece was that his discussion of artificial sweeteners focused primarily on their purported cancer risk, which may be unfounded or overblown. But he totally neglected to mention a different and equally important reason to avoid these chemical additives: they might not even work to prevent obesity.
In recent years, a growing body of research, including a 2010 meta-review published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine and a 2014 study published in the journal Nature, has raised legitimate concerns that the consumption of artificial sweeteners actually increases the risk of weight gain and metabolic disorders, possibly by interfering with our gut bacteria. Or, as the researchers in Nature put it, artificial sweeteners “may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic they were intended to fight.” I can’t account for Carroll’s failure to at least raise this line of scientific inquiry, as it’s obviously relevant to the discussion, but I was pleased to see that several experts wrote into the Times to take issue with Carroll’s omission. You can read their published letters here.
I personally believe that the apparent ineffectiveness of artificial sweeteners in preventing obesity coupled with any possible health risks these chemicals may carry, lands them squarely behind sugar in the “lesser of two evils” face-off. That’s one reason why, back in 2013, I helped lead a coalition of 29 leading health experts and organizations to block a dairy industry plan to get artifically-sweetened flavored milk into schools on a widespread basis. (That proposal is still pending before the Food and Drug Administration; you can read our open letter here.)
I’m certainly not a fan of sugar-sweetened beverages, either, which we already know are a leading driver of obesity. In an ideal world, we’d drink nothing but water when we’re thirtsy. But let’s face it: sometimes we all crave a more interesting drink than plain water. So what should you do when you or your kids just have to have a sweetened drink?
In my house, we make our own sweetened drinks using a Soda Stream, an appliance that will pay for itself if you’re already lugging home bottles of seltzer from the grocery store. To our homemade seltzer water we add just a splash of all-natural grape or pomegranate juice — enough to lend the drink a pretty color and a hint of sweetness, but with only around 2- 4 grams of sugar per serving. (Contrast that total with the whopping 33 grams of sugar in a can of soda.) We also like Soda Stream’s own brand of all-natural fruit essences, which contain no sugar or artificial sweetener. The resulting drink isn’t sweet, of course, but it’s fruity enough that it can satisfy a soda craving. And you can also read this 2011 Lunch Tray post, “My Solution to the ‘Boring’ Drink Problem,” which talks about brewing low-sugar, fruity herbal teas to create fun lunchbox drinks for your kids.
Where do you come out on the sugar/artificial sweetener debate when it comes to your kids? Let me know in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.
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