Diet sodas - Good or bad?

Looking at the ingredients label on a diet soda raises questions: What the heck is glycerol ester of wood rosin? Brominated vegetable oil? Phenylketonurics? More importantly, are diet sodas and these ingredients unhealthy? Susannah Southern, an outpatient dietitian in UNC’s Department of Family Medicine, walks us through the basics.

View the full, original article at UNC Health Care's blog.


Will Arey of the News office wrote this...

I don’t like coffee, so you’ll never find me among the masses at Starbucks in the morning. But I do like some caffeine every now and then to get me going. For the past few months my go-to drink for a rush has been Diet Sun Drop. But after taking a peek at the ingredients label, I had more questions (and concerns) than answers.

What the heck is glycerol ester of wood rosin? Or brominated vegetable oil? Phenylketonurics? More importantly, are diet sodas and these crazy ingredients unhealthy? Should I avoid them completely?

With these questions in mind (and a Diet Sun Drop in hand), I contacted Susannah Southern, an outpatient dietitian in UNC’s Department of Family Medicine.

“A diet soda in moderation is probably safe,” Susannah said. “But it can get scary if a diet soda is your primary drink of choice, mainly because of the chemicals in diet drinks.”

Susannah also gave me the following pros/cons list for diet sodas, some of which surprised me:

Pros

  • Lack of calories – The reason why I think most of us begin drinking diet sodas to begin with. Most have 10 or less calories per serving and also avoid the empty calories found in regular soft drinks.
  • Fluid intake in general – In a society that isn’t properly hydrated in many instances, she said it’s important we get fluids however possible.
  • Taste – This one is a bit controversial (see below), but Susannah did acknowledge that sometimes a diet soda just tastes better than water.


Cons

  • Lack of other health benefits – Other than the fluid intake benefit mentioned above, diet sodas have no other nutritional benefit.
  • Questionable ingredients – Susannah pointed me to this link from the Center for Science in the Public Interest discussing food additives. She specifically suggested avoiding aspartame, acesulfame-K, brominated vegetable oil, saccharine and yellow 5. That’s three strikes for my precious Diet Sun Drop if you’re counting at home. Yikes.
  • Salt – I didn’t expect this one. But Susannah pointed out that each 8-ounce serving of my Diet Sun Drop has 70 mg of sodium.
  • Acidity – Even without real sugar, diet drinks can still erode your teeth!
  • Cost – Susannah gently reminded me that water is free (at least from the fountain).
  • Taste – Wait a minute, how can this be on both the “Pros” and “Cons” list? It turns out that some research suggests that diet drinks may prime our taste for other sweet, sugary foods and drinks.


So what’s the verdict? As with most everything, it looks like moderation is the winner in this debate. While water is still the best choice, Susannah also said that tea (unsweetened or with a safe artificial sweetener like Splenda), coffee (without lots of cream and sugar) and lowfat dairy drinks like skim milk are all better choices than diet drinks.

But a diet drink every so often isn’t necessarily a huge problem, either. That said, I think I’ll avoid my diet drinks in the future except for rare circumstances.

And that Diet Sun Drop I was drinking when I began my conversation with Susannah – I poured it out.