Diet Coke: Because you Can(cer)

Diet Coke may be the world’s biggest misnomer.

In lieu of various attacks by the media on Diet Coke, the Coca-Cola brand has revamped the look of the popular beverage to target millennials. An ad featuring actress Gillian Jacobs comes with the slogan “Because I can." Here Coca-Cola blatantly acknowledges the controversy around its drink, and embraces a nonchalant attitude toward its continued use of aspartame.

The notorious artificial sweetener has received attention from health-conscious consumers because of its potential links to health complications, specifically cancer. But are artificial sweeteners really as dangerous as mass media claims?

In 2015 Diet Pepsi removed aspartame from their beverages, only to see a drop in sales after consumers complained about the changed formula. This lead to both Coke and Pepsi finding new artificial sweeteners for their beverages as well as marketing a version of their sodas specifically containing aspartame.

There are five artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. As well as a “natural” low calorie sweeter, called stevia. In regard to stevia as a sweetener substitute, the stevia leaf is processed in a lab with ethanol, according to Nestle. Since the term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA, it is up to the consumer to decide what he or she is willing to deem as safe.

So are artificial sweeteners safe? Well, like most nutritional advice consumers receive, there is no clear answer.

An article published in 2004 by the European Society for Medical Oncology concluded that the following can be assumed about the carcinogenic potential of artificial sweeteners. In high doses, saccharin induces bladder cancer in rats; moreover, in humans the consumption of more than 1680 mg per day can lead to a relative risk of 1.3 percent for bladder cancer. This particular article concludes by saying there is no sufficient evidence that aspartame bears carcinogenic risk.

Again, articles like this have been floating around mass media leading to confusion in consumers.

Perhaps it cannot yet be concluded that artificial sweeteners cause cancer; however, there is an overwhelming number of other health concerns that have been linked to artificial sweeteners.

According to CNN, in 2008 a study concluded that consuming more than two servings of diet soda a day could double the risk of kidney decline in women. In 2012, another study suggested that there was a link between diet soda and a higher risk for cardiovascular events.

Aside from hidden health concerns, there is also the more obvious concern linked to consuming large amounts of “sugar”: weight gain.

In a post from the Harvard Health Blog, Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight loss specialist, notes that it is easy to fool ourselves with “diet” sodas. He says people think: "I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s okay to have cake." The faux “diet” beverage can make the consumer believe that if one aspect of their meal is healthy, they are more inclined to pick an unhealthy counterpart.

Artificial sweeteners may also be changing the way we taste food. Artificial sweeteners are significantly more potent than table sugar so they create a sensation that over stimulates the sugar receptors of the body and can limit the tolerance of more complex tastes. This means that sweet foods like fruit are perceived less intensely. In addition, artificial sweeteners may prevent the body from associating sweetness with caloric intake, resulting in craving more sweet foods, and ultimately causing weight gain. In the San Antonio Heart Study, participants who drank more than 21 diet sodas per week were twice as likely to become overweight than those who did not drink diet soda.  

It is said that moderation is key, however, animal studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners may be addictive. Studies have shown that when rats who were exposed to cocaine and then given the choice between cocaine or saccharine, most of the rats chose saccharin.

Here’s something the FDA can agree on: Aspartame is not safe for those with phenylketonuria because those with this genetic disorder lack the enzyme that breaks down phenylalanine. Ultimately phenylalanine build up can significantly alter brain function.

As artificial sweeteners seem to become more and more dangerous with every article published, there is still a lot of gray area on the severity of the side effects of artificial sweeteners. However, artificial sweeteners have been linked to health complications like obesity, migraines, kidney decline, cardiovascular events, and some cancers. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to stay away from anything with this much controversy behind it. As for Diet Coke’s new millennial marketing tactics: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.