It is a widely known fact that sugar in soft drinks has been in question for some time now. Research has shown sugar to be a leading cause of obesity and this caused an epidemic for those soda drinkers out there. As Americans, we are in a constant search to find the easiest method for losing weight. Thus the artificial sweetener evolved. Soon it was discovered that it did not have the greatest side effects so it researched and reinvented only to discover that it has yet to be perfected. Today, we still have good old fashioned, obesity causing sugar and new and improved, cancer causing yet obesity preventing artificial sweetener. As a consumer, which one is actually the better choice?
When you investigate the evolutionary history of soft drinks, you will discovery that they have only recently evolved in relation to how long humans have been on the earth. The only to “beverages” available were breast milk and water until about 11,000 years ago. In the big picture, humans have been around for 100,000-200,000 years. This leads you to believe our systems may not have been set up to digest either substance at all.
Let us first take a closer look at the original sugar. Sugar is quite natural as it is a plant. It begins as sugar cane or sugar beets. Once it is extracted, it then goes through the refining process, which is when the natural goodness is altered. When sugar is introduced to the body, it causes an instant jump in insulin levels resulting in what we call a sugar high. The down side is once you come down from the high it causes your body to fall into a sort of depression. To compensate for the depression, your body craves more sugar and thus the vicious cycle begins. The abuse of this cycle can also lead to diabetes, due to the high caloric intake of sugar, and even some bi-polar disorders due to heavy mood swings. This leads us to the problem of obesity. Sugar can become addictive causing that need to have sugar all the time. Since refined sugar does not occur naturally, the body does not have to work hard to break it down. In fact, it begins before it ever hits your stomach. It is absorbed quickly and directly into the blood stream. Sugar is carried to the blood by insulin. Then there is an immediate response where enzymes rapidly work to convert sugar to fat and a slower response, where a few different genes are turned on and off. This action actually creates more enzymes to turn the sugar into fat. The upside? It is the more natural of the two choices of sugar or artificial sweeteners. In small amounts it is not harmful.
Now let us review artificial sweeteners. There has been much research and modification done to this less natural evil. It has been shown to cause irregular heartbeats and cancer. Studies back in the 70’s, linked the sweetener, saccharin, to cancer. This ignited the improvements to artificial sweeteners. More recent studies on lab rats had continued to prove a relation to cancer when there was the largest aspartame study ever done on animals. A more recent study was done on humans based on a survey conducted in the mid 90’s. They documented the amount of aspartame was consumed, particularly from sodas and sweetener added to teas and coffees. Over a five-year period, all cancer cases were recorded and none were related to the amount of aspartame consumed. These artificial sweeteners are added to foods and drinks on the market under several different names. One of those is Acesulfame K. It is non-nutritive and is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (aka table sugar) and is often used as a flavor-enhancer or to preserve the food’s sweetness. The negative is that Acesulfame K does contain the carcinogen methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver effects, kidney effects, visual disturbances, and cancer in humans. The controversy is that there has not been enough testing and that testing is not currently required by the FDA. This is the case with most versions of the current, on the market artificial sweeteners. Most say that, like the saccharin study from the 70’s, there have not been enough studies to prove negative or positive effects.
In both cases, there seems to be a few common factors. In moderation, neither seems to be all that harmful. Another common factor is the lack of satiation. They can cause you to have munchies, which adds caloric intake. This is counterproductive in the case of the artificial sweetener. Are soft drinks containing artificial sweeteners really healthier than soft drinks containing sugar? Possibly in moderation and when extra calories are not added in order to make up for the empty calories consumed. The most honest answer given by health experts is to stick to water and milk for the majority of liquid intake.