For some, swapping out regular soda for a diet option can feel like a healthier choice. But mounting research has shown that while the popular beverages may be marketed as a safer alternative, there are still plenty of downsides when indulging your fizzy drink craving—even when it’s a reduced-calorie option. Now, new research has shown that some ingredients in diet soda can even spike your risk of certain types of cancer. Read on to see why you may want to consider cutting out your consumption of the carbonated beverages.
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The latest research on the connection between diet soda and cancer comes from a study published on March 24 in the journal PLOS Medicine. Researchers used data from over 102,865 French adults participating in the ongoing NutriNet-Santé survey, which collects self-reported information from participants about their medical history, lifestyle, diet, and health. For the purposes of this study, data on artificial sweetener intake over a mean follow-up period of eight years was compared with cancer diagnosis information from the database.
After adjusting for health variables including age, sex, and family medical history, results showed that participants who consumed the highest quantities of the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame-K commonly used as an ingredient in diet soda were 13 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer compared to those who didn’t regularly consume them. Specifically, high aspartame consumption alone was associated with a 22 percent increased rate of breast cancer and a 15 percent increased risk of obesity-related cancers.
The researchers said their results still helped shed new light on a topic that has seen exhaustive examination. “Findings from this study are very original since, to our knowledge, no previous cohort study had directly investigated the association between quantitative artificial sweetener intakes per se—distinguishing the different types of sweeteners and cancer risk,” the study’s co-authors Charlotte Debras, PhD, and Mathilde Touvier, PhD, from Sorbonne Paris Nord University, told MedPage Today in a joint email.
“But these results are in line with our initial hypothesis and with previous scientific literature,” they added. “Indeed, some observational studies have investigated the associations between cancer risk and the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages (used as a proxy) and found increased risk of cancer, suggesting that artificial sweeteners present in these types of beverages might play a role in the development of cancer.”
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Despite the novelty of the findings, the research team admitted some limitations with the study, including that the results only establish correlation and not causation between cancer diagnoses and artificial sweetener consumption. They also cite potential selection bias as a factor since most participants were more likely to be more health-conscious women with higher education levels. The team suggests that a larger scale study will need to be performed to confirm the results.
However, the researchers said the findings provided an argument for reducing the intake of artificial sweeteners and regular sugar, as high consumption of both has been connected with health risks. “The recommendation is to limit processed foods with either added sugar or artificial sweeteners. This objective must be achieved by reducing the overall sweet taste of food, and this from an early age,” the study authors wrote in an email to Insider.
The wide range of studies on the health effects of diet soda consumption goes well beyond cancer risk. For example, one 2017 study published in the journal Stroke found that diet sodas lead to a higher risk of dementia. The study kept track of 1,484 people over the age of 60 for a 10-year period and found that those who drank diet soda every day (compared to less than once a week) were three times more likely to develop the disease.
The study did not only look at dementia, but also at the stroke risk that comes with regularly drinking diet soda, and found similar results. For this, researchers kept track of 2,888 people aged 45 and over for the same 10-year period. They found that those who drank at least one diet soda a day were also about three times more likely “to have an ischemic stroke, caused by blood vessel blockage.”
While the study’s authors admitted that results only established correlation and not causation, it still underlined certain important health behaviors. “Have more water and have less diet soda,” Christopher Gardner, PhD, director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, said in an American Heart Association (AHA) press release, per The Washington Post. “And don’t switch to real soda.”
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