Culture | When sugar-free ain’t so sweet

Katrina Sieniuc explores Montreal’s sodapop past

There’s a reason why consumers continually buy diet sodas over their regular counterparts – or even over newer “zero” products. They like it that way. It tastes and feels healthier, right?

John Hoffer of the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research said he “would not be at all surprised to learn that a large proportion of people have grown up with these drinks and developed an acquired taste for the chemical sweeteners.” A regular soda drink contains nine teaspoons of sugar and not much else besides some phosphoric acid. Thus, any product with the word “diet” on the label superficially elevates one’s soda-drinking-pastime to something of a health regimen. Mary Hendrickson-Nelson, undergraduate academic advisor for the McGill Dietetics and Human Nutrition Department, maintains that these sugar-free drinks do indeed save calories, and, thus, are an appealing alternative to sugary beverages – especially for people who are working on managing their weight or have diabetes. In fact, the first formula for the diet soft drink was developed at the behest of diabetes patients at McGill’s Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal in the 1950s. Since then, diet drinks have undergone a major rebranding from a product with a particular medical motivation, to one targeted to a broader public as a particular lifestyle choice.

So, how did the diet soft drink transform from primarily a health choice to a “healthy choice?” Hendrickson-Nelson contends that in today’s age, “diet beverages appeal to teens and women and ads target them.” Hoffer believes that the original reason for this new trend is conceptual: “The desire to experience the sensory pleasure of the drink, but [be] reassured that one is not consuming empty calories,” he said. Going beyond just taste, Hoffer further posed the possibility that consumers drink diet soft drinks “with a sense of virtue and safety, that they are doing something good and proper, and that they are being responsible. That is an emotional state of doing the right thing.” Varoujan Yaylayan, chair of the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry at McGill viewed “the impact of a ‘healthy’ image of diet drinks [as depending] on the level of sophistication of the consumer and how informed he or she is”.

In recent years, the health implications of drinking diet soda have not been concretely proven. Some findings based on epidemiological data conclude that people who drink more diet sodas have more cardiovascular disease events. But this should be regarded as provisional and suggestive, rather than as a definite conclusion. “Do not make the mistake of arguing that this association proves that diet sodas are risk factors for heart disease,” explained Hoffer. A more likely explanation for the association is that people who drink diet sodas more regularly are people who are already “prone to overeat and to eat the wrong foods in general,” concluded Hoffer. In terms of energy consumption, Hoffer maintained that there is some evidence to suggest that those who drink diet beverages do not decrease their total daily energy consumption but even increase it in some cases as “they are ‘unsatisfied’ by the lack of calories.” There is also other evidence that suggests diet sodas are neutral, and do not have any effect on total energy consumption.

Hendrickson-Nelson pointed to Canada’s Food Guide for healthy alternatives to diet beverages.  It recommends that we drink water to quench our thirst, and low fat milk or alternatives, and a half cup of juice per day to help us meet our nutrient needs. Tea and coffee in moderation are other options that provide phytochemicals and antioxidants. She explained that replacing milk and alternatives with diet soda can increase risk for osteoporosis. Yaylayan suggested that we just drink water. “Why do we need sweetened water?” he asked.

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