The suggestion that diet sodas cause dementia is overhyped
The soft drinks industry was reeling this week after all the papers carried the story that diet drinks have been linked to an increased risk of dementia.
The use of artificial sweeteners was identified as the problem.
Already under pressure to reduce the sugar content in their mainstream products the manufacturers suddenly found that even their ‘healthy’ ranges and brands were being vilified.
As is so often the case, though, the science doesn’t fully support the fuss being made.
The official response from the NHS, via their NHS Choices website, offered an excellent commentary on the background to the research and any conclusions that can be drawn from it.
"Diet drinks triple your risk of stroke and dementia," the Daily Mail reported, as US research claimed a link between daily intake and increased risk.
However, the chain of evidence is not as strong as reported.
The researchers analysed data from an ongoing US cohort study to see if consumption of sugar or artificially sweetened drinks was linked with risk of stroke or dementia 10 years later.
Several thousand people were included in the study, and during follow-up 3% had a stroke and 5% developed dementia.
Overall, when taking account of all health and lifestyle factors that could have an influence (confounders), the researchers actually found no link between artificially sweetened drinks and risk of dementia.
The figures reported in the media came from a model that wasn't adjusted for all confounders, such as diabetes, that could explain part of the link.
For stroke the links with artificially sweetened drinks were inconsistent.
There were no overall links when looking at longer term patterns.
The study does not give definitive "cause and effect" proof that drinking artificially sweetened drinks will lead to stroke or dementia.
Still, the lead author's reported statement that it is healthier (not to mention cheaper) to just drink water is sound advice.
Many negative claims have been made against artificial sweeteners including suggestions that they cause cancer or liver failure, or that they increase appetite and so defeat their own purpose.
Under close scrutiny and extensive testing by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) none of these claims was found to be true.
Consumers can be reassured that the contents of their foodstuffs and drinks are carefully monitored and constantly retested and nothing can be used without gaining full approval first.
So the woman at the Tesco checkout last week who told me that my sweetener tablets will give me cancer was reflecting a deeply embedded but erroneous lie that has taken hold in the popular consciousness.
She knows better now.
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