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Diet Soft Drinks
How Safe Are They?

by Mary Franz, MS, RD, LD

Neotame is one of the newest artificial sweeteners to garner FDA clearance, in 2002. It is estimated to be 6,000–13,000 times sweeter than sugar. It is not yet in widespread use in the United States, but due to its positive review by the World Health Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives and its widespread use in Europe, Australia, South America, Russia, and Mexico, neotame is expected to gain popularity as a sweetener in US diet sodas.

Alitame is a sweetener that has not yet gotten the FDA’s OK. Like aspartame, it is made up of two amino acids, aspartic acid and alanine. If cleared for use in foods and beverages, it is expected to gain widespread acceptance due to its stability at high cooking and baking temperatures.

Cyclamate is a sweetener that was banned in the United States in 1969 after a study showed that feeding large amounts (the equivalent of 350 cans of soda a day) to laboratory animals caused bladder cancer. Though still prohibited in the United States, cyclamate remains legal in 55 other countries including Canada, where it is a component of Sweet’N Low.

Safety standards and concerns
All artificial sweeteners sold in the United States must undergo rigorous safety testing to gain FDA approval. In addition, the FDA maintains guidelines to inform consumers about safe consumption levels. The FDA has established a safe level of consumption for diet sodas containing aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose. This level, known as the Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI), is the maximum amount considered to be safe for daily consumption. It is assigned after extensive testing and set at an amount 100 times lower than that found to be safe in animal studies. The ADIs for artificial sweeteners per 12 ounces of diet soda are as follows, based on the amount of sweetener typically found in each soda:

  • 18–19 cans of diet cola containing aspartame
  • 30–32 cans of diet lemon-lime soda containing acesulfame K
  • 6 cans of diet cola containing sucralose

Although no ADI has been set for soda containing saccharin, for single-serving packets the ADI is 9–12 packets. To date, no ADI has been set for stevia. The amount of saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame K found in a variety of popular diet sodas is shown in “Amounts of Sweeteners in Popular Sodas.”

Determining the amount of low-calorie sweeteners in products other than diet soda, such as snacks, baked goods, and breakfast cereals, can be difficult. While the labels for these products must note that the sweeteners are present, they often do not say how many milligrams of sweetener is in each serving. People who would like to limit their intake of low-calorie sweeteners can do so by avoiding products that list low-calorie sweeteners near the beginning of the ingredients list, as well as those that contain more than one type of low-calorie sweetener.

Despite safety assurances from the FDA, the sweeteners found in diet sodas have been blamed for a wide variety of health concerns, ranging from headaches, allergies, and digestive problems to cancer and neurological disorders. The public’s uncertainty surrounding the safety of low-calorie sweeteners is complicated by the fact that sweeteners have been studied primarily in animals, and the long-term effects of their use in humans are not completely known. As a result, there has been an explosion in the number of Web sites, forums, and advocacy groups dedicated to exploring the safety of artificial sweeteners, often with contradictory and confusing information. There is, however, new research in humans that has begun to show some links between diet soda and various health conditions.

New research
Studies on the health effects of drinking diet soda have examined connections to a variety of conditions and indicators of health. In many cases, the results have been especially relevant to people who already have Type 2 diabetes or are at risk of developing it. Some of the research is also highly relevant to people with Type 1 diabetes.

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Also in this article:
Amounts of Sweeteners in Popular Diet Sodas



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