Diet Soda Empire Strikes Back

Over the last year, many media outlets have been reporting a decline in soda sales, particularly diet soda sales. In January, the NY Times posted The Quest for a Natural Sugar Substitute, which is largely about the beverage industry trying stevia instead of aspartame to sweeten diet sodas.

In April, Forbes wrote that stevia’s aftertaste wasn’t selling, and suggested the better pitch might be still, or non-carbonated, beverages like teas:

… volumes declined by 3.2% year-over-year to less than 13 billion gallons last year, primarily due to a slide in diet drink sales. … Consumers have been shifting to natural and healthier beverages with less sugar and calorie content due to the health risks associated with sugary drinks. The diet counterparts have fared even worse, with the artificial sweetener aspartame being criticized for causing sugar cravings, dehydration, weight gain and even heart diseases. Health and wellness concerns have further caused a 7% decline in diet soda consumption in the domestic market in the first quarter. Consumers have also reported bitter aftertastes of diet drinks which use the natural sweetener stevia, initially considered a bankable solution. …

More recently, the industry has turned to science – sort of. The American Beverage Association funded a study, which purports to show that diet soda is better for weight loss than soda. That study was published in a journal called Obesity, and has been widely reported regurgitated by media such as the NY Times Well blog, CNN and probably your local news. At the Well, many commenters reject the study because of who funded it, while other supposedly unpaid commenters implore us to accept the study as proven science, writing, “Conspiracy theories abound but the simple truth is that non-caloric sweeteners are useful, safe and tasty. Time to move on.

Nothing to see here, folks. Keep buying diet soda. Pleeease!

Medical News Today offers a more critical look, starting with the headline, Industry-funded study implies diet soda is ‘superior to water for weight loss’:

The new study included 303 overweight participants, all of whom were taking part in a weight loss and exercise program and all of whom were regular consumers of diet drinks. Randomized into two groups, one group was instructed not to consume any diet drinks and to drink at least 24 oz of water daily during the study period. The other group could continue to drink diet sodas.

After 12 weeks, … those in the diet drink group had lost 14.2 lb on average. … about 4 lb more than the people in the group instructed to drink mostly water …

Did both groups do the same exercises? What else did they eat? Did both groups lose inches? Did both groups add muscle mass? Did both groups keep the weight off? We are not being told much beyond the one stat about weight loss.

But … researchers themselves confess … that because of the design of the study they are unable to identify the mechanism for the greater weight loss in the diet soda group. … the study does not detail what the non-diet drink group consumed, beyond water.

The study does not provide detailed information on what – in addition to water – the control group consumed in lieu of diet drinks. As these participants were regular soda drinkers, it could be that they replaced their diet soda intake with other sweetened drinks, in addition to the water they were asked to drink.

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