by Anne Finch, Accredited Practising Dietitian for LiveLighter

stacked cans

With so much heat in the sugar debate, a lot of people are looking to reduce their sugar intake. And don’t worry, the food industry has noticed! There are now more zero and low sugar drink options than ever before. Are they really a better option?   

Artificial sweeteners are thousands of times sweeter than sugar, so they only need to be used in teeny tiny amounts. This means that artificially sweetened products usually have very few kilojoules (or calories). There are many different kinds of artificial sweeteners used in Australia, including aspartame, sucralose and saccharin.

Diet drinks use these sweeteners and are therefore sugar free and kilojoule free. Which sounds great! All the tastiness of a sugary drink without the extra kilojoules! But it’s not that simple.

We’re not going down the “artificial sweeteners cause cancer” path. The World Cancer Research Fund reckons there’s no good quality scientific evidence for that and that’s good enough for me. But it does look like artificial sweeteners can set up some imbalances in the body. Intrigued? Read on…

When you taste something sweet, your body starts getting ready to digest the incoming sugar. So when you have an artificial sweetener, there’s that sweet taste, and that signals the body to get ramped up and ready to digest. And then no sugar comes, because der, it’s sugar-free. It looks like this might cause an increase in appetite later in the day, or make you crave sweet things more often. Not great if you’re trying to lose weight! More good quality studies are needed in this area, but it’s something to be mindful of if you regularly drink diet drinks.

It also looks like artificial sweeteners can mess with our gut bacteria. An unhappy gut bacteria has been linked to a range of health issues including obesity, depression, type two diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

While it’s clear that our diet can influence our gut bacteria, and our gut bacteria can influence our health, the research in this area is still in its early days. So far though, there’s compelling evidence about how to keep the gut bacteria happy! You can do that by eating heaps of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain foods and not eating too much meat or junk food and potentially avoiding artificial sweeteners.


There’s no right decision about whether to have the full sugar or artificially sweetened versions. There are down sides to both. How often you drink them and your overall diet and health will determine what the right decision is for you.   It’s always worth remembering that both versions are bad for your teeth. And that the best drink for your body is water!

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