Everyone knows that sugary pop is terrible for our health; added sugar and acid combines to cause tooth decay, contribute to childhood obesity and may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. They are the best example of what’s known as “empty” calories – lots of energy offered with no additional nutritional benefit. But what about diet fizzy beverages, made with artificial sweeteners? 12.5% of US children are now drinking artificially sweetened drinks daily, but are they better are than the full sugar version?

Artificial Sweeteners

Research into artificial sweeteners and the role they play in weight control is ongoing and inconclusive. What we can say is that the claim that artificial sweeteners will definitely help you lose weight is likely to be wrong. This may seem counterintuitive; surely reducing your calorie intake from sugar leads to weight loss? Not necessarily. Whilst the exact mechanism is unknown, it is suggested that the body engages in compensatory behaviour in response to the artificial sweet taste, making you crave sugary foods, affecting appetite or perhaps altering insulin behaviour; basically, you eat more to compensate. If you have the willpower to control your diet then yes, switching full sugar to sweetener will cause weight loss, but if you continue to eat what you like when you want to, simply switching drink is unlikely to give you the results you’re looking for!


Caffeine

Stimulants are very much a part of our everyday culture, but whilst you may need a morning
caffeine fix your kids certainly don’t. Caffeine can disturb sleep, concentration and behavior in children – and with a 330ml can of Coca-Cola classic containing 32mg of caffeine and a can of diet coke containing 42mg, it’s clear that the diet version of drinks can actually be even worse than the non-diet.

Tooth Decay

There is another way that all fizzy drinks are able to wreck your health – by acting as a causative factor in tooth erosion. Their acidic nature (low pH) means they are able to react with the enamel on your teeth and dissolve them, leading to cavities.

Acids are found in all carbonated drinks, diet or not. Carbonic acid is formed when carbon dioxide creates those bubbles we all love, and a variety of other acids are added for flavour and shelf stability. Phosphoric and citric acid are two of the most common.
The table below shows the pH of several common diet drinks, taken from a university of Michigan Study found here. Teeth begin to erode below pH 5.5. Although diet drinks can be slightly less acidic than their counterparts, this study found that there was no significant difference in their corrosive ability – they were equally bad when looking at tooth decay.
With 24% of 13-15 year olds drink consumption and 11% of 5-9 year olds consumption coming from carbonates, as well as large added sugar intakes, it’s no wonder there were 40,970 tooth extractions in under 18s in 2014-2015, representing the greatest number of surgeries in this age group.

Children’s Drinking Guidelines

The Children’s Food Trust guidelines for drinks advise that children should avoid fruit juice drinks, squash, fizzy drinks, flavoured water and drinks containing added stimulants. They advise to offer only water and milk between meals, and half diluted fruit juice only at mealtimes.  Harvard Health suggests that for adults attempting to stop drinking full sugar drinks, diet beverages are a possible short term substitute. They also suggest its best for children to avoid all artificial sweeteners.

 

How to Change your Habits

So how do we stop our children drinking fizzy drinks? Well, research shows it doesn’t start with them; 4-8 year olds whose parents drink fizzy drinks are 192% more likely to consume fizzy beverages. It’s up to us to model healthy behaviour. As the parent, you have final say over what comes into your kitchen cupboards, especially with young children who can’t make informed decisions.

We all know this on a rational level, but in reality pester power is strong, sustained and extremely persuasive. If you or your child is hooked on the sweet stuff it can be difficult to wean off. So what do we do about our fizzy addiction?

Simple and obvious the first step is to reduce the frequency of pop consumption – stop bringing fizzy drinks into your home! Swap for water or milk at meal times, and swap for a piece of fruit at snack time. If you and your children can’t countenance complete abstinence, you could try diluting the drink with water to reduce the amount of acid available, and only offering them as an occasional treat Put them somewhere out of sight and in an unreachable location. Serving fizzys with a straw may also be useful, since research and common sense tells us that the greater the contact time between the drink and teeth the more acidic the mouth will become. Above all invest time in your child’s dental health, whether or not they drink the sweet stuff regularly. Advice from the NHS can be found here.


The Perfect Drink

There is one perfect drink. Water. David Mitchell sums it up well in the Guardian – “Water, the very first drink mankind discovered, remains unbettered”. What a damning illustration of the futility of commerce”. Water is the best hydrator, free of additives and completely free; there is no need to buy bottled, tap is just as good if not better.

Happy Drinking!

Charlie Rose Howard, Dietetic Student

Charlie is a BSc Nutrition and Dietetics student at King’s College London. She’s interested in all things public health, child health, and evidence based. Tweet her @charlieroseRD2B

 

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.