Fitness Flash: Debating diet soda

While many of us refuse to acknowledge the unpleasant truth, the fact is that many Ephs suffer from severe and debilitating addictions to coke. Diet Coke, to be specific. Particularly during times of intense stress, students and faculty alike guzzle sugar-free soda by the gallon. Dining halls are always in short supply of the sweet stuff during midterms, when students pump out papers and problem sets during caffeine-fueled study sessions at Club Sawyer. Just a few weeks ago, I stopped by the library vending machine to purchase a Coke Zero only to find that every single diet drink was sold out. As I seethed silently, a girl nearby shot me a sympathetic smile. “It’s been a really rough week for everybody,” she said with a shrug.

My non-drinker friends revel in calling me out, a smug smile creeping onto their faces as they inform me that I’m going to get cancer from downing diet soda (thanks, guys!). But has this claim been substantiated by research, or is it merely an urban legend engineered to boost sugar sales? In the interest of scientific truth and good health, I endeavored to canvas the literature and speak with experts to determine whether diet soda does indeed pose an imminent threat to the health of our community.

According to Professor of Biology Dan Lynch, the publicity surrounding the potential perils of diet soda is vastly overblown. While Lynch admitted to polishing off two liters of Diet Coke per day (lightweight!), he maintains that from an objective scientific standpoint, no evidence suggests that sugar-free drinks pose an imminent threat to public health. “The diet soda hype has been overblown,” Lynch said. “As long as you’re not drinking eight gallons a day, there really don’t seem to be any bad effects.”

Much of the public health concern about diet soda stems from anxiety over artificial sweeteners. The vilification of sugar substitutes in popular media dates back to the 1970s, when one study demonstrated that a blend of saccharin and cyclamate (both artificial sweeteners) caused bladder cancer in rats. According to Professor of Biology and Department Chair Steven Swoap, this data should be taken with a grain of salt (or sugar). “This was achieved with a lifelong high dose of this blend,” Swoap said. “To translate this to humans is difficult because rats can concentrate their urine so much more than humans.” Rats metabolize sugars differently, meaning that bladder cells of rats are exposed to much higher doses of sweeteners than humans who ingest a comparable amount. “It’s much higher doses than any human cell would ever see,” Swoap said.

And as Lynch pointed out, the vast majority of diet drinks are no longer sweetened with saccharin – they’re sweetened with aspartame. Aspartame is constructed of two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenalayanyne – that are present in any protein. “If you eat yogurt, that will have these guys in there,” Lynch said. “The stuff in diet soda is no different.”

Aspartame is almost 200 times sweeter than table sugar, meaning that any diet drink containing aspartame has far less sweetener than regular sodas. A 20-ounce bottle of Coke packs 65 grams of sugar, while a bottle of Diet Coke contains only 1/10 of a gram of aspartame.

So what about the claim that we’d all be better off downing regular soda? Hogwash. “If you want to make a villain out of drink, I would pick liquids that have high concentrations of fructose or sucrose like regular sodas or fruit juices,” Swoap said. While no study has conclusively demonstrated that aspartame can lead to health complications, plenty of research confirms that sugar carries a whole host of health risks. “There are a number of scientists, including this one, who put the obesity epidemic squarely on the shoulders of food and drink that contains fructose and sucrose,” Swoap said.

Lynch added that the quantity of sugar in regular Coke yields a high calorie content – about 250 calories per bottle. “If you do the math, it works out that if you consume 100 calories [more than you burn] each day, you put on 10 pounds in a year. If you’re drinking a typical soda, you’re talking about 15 pounds a year that you’re putting on from soda,” Lynch said. In actuality, it would a boon to public health if everyone swapped standard Coke for diet.

However, many people object to soda in general, claiming that it’s unnatural and therefore unhealthy. A number of so-called “natural” alternative beverages contain caloric sweeteners such as honey and agave nectar. However, as Lynch pointed out, not everything that’s natural is inherently healthy. “Botulism toxin is natural. Cocaine is natural. Tobacco is natural,” he said. “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s healthy, per se.” Conversely, simply because something is manufactured in the lab does not mean it’s innately unhealthy.

And what about caffeine? Scientific literature is divided on whether caffeine is a diet friend or foe. While some research suggests that caffeine can make sensitive individuals jittery and anxious, most studies suggest that drinking a reasonable amount won’t produce any dire health consequences. In fact, recent research suggests that caffeine may be beneficial in some circumstances – such as immediately before a workout. It’s also worth noting that – for better or for worse – the amount of caffeine in diet soda is negligible compared to the amount found in coffee. Eight ounces of Diet Coke contains 30 mg of caffeine; the same amount of coffee packs over 100 mg.

This is not to say that we should all down diet soda as if it were mother’s milk. As Lynch pointed out, “It’s possible to overdo anything.” However, if an insatiable craving strikes, it’s better to satisfy it with a sugar-free drink than a sugar-laden one. Ephs need not chastise themselves for indulging occasionally (or not so occasionally) in big glass of Diet Coke. After all, in Lynch’s words, “It’s the drink of champions.”