According to an American Heart Association study, people who drank one diet or low calorie sugar soft drink a day over a 10 year period, were nearly three times more likely to suffer a stroke or develop dementia. Does this mean that artificial sweeteners are dangerous? Should health experts still be advising us to switch to sugar free drinks? Are scientists “changing their minds” again?
Let’s get a few things in perspective. First, the AHA study has major limitations in terms of its design and size. People were asked to fill out food frequency questionnaires which were then analysed according to what illnesses they developed after 10 years. Food frequency questionnaires are notoriously unreliable – they give an indication on dietary habits only if people tell or remember the truth! Data can highlight trends but not what we call cause and effect.
Although there was a putative trend between diet drinks and the development of strokes and dementia there is no evidence to suggest that sugar free drinks caused them. It could simply be that the subjects in the study who were drinking the artificially sweetened drinks made a health conscious choice to do so because of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes (which put them at a great risk of stroke any way).
Switching to sugar free drinks is still important healthy eating advice, especially for dental health. But as with everything else, moderation is key