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Many health-oriented people are convinced that artificial sweeteners are poison. The evidence of toxicity for saccharin, aspartame, and sweeteners that contain phenylalanine isn't what their opponents suggest.

I'll begin this article with a confession. I drink Diet Coke.

I only drink at most one Diet Coke a day, and there are days I don't drink any. I don't have to have it. (I think that any food or beverage you "can't live without" is one that you should give up, so that you aren't controlled by it.) While I have had some very serious health issues, and come through them, I don't think my one can of sugar-free soda is the culprit. The scientific evidence suggests that sugar is a far greater problem than artificial sweeteners.

What's The Problem With Sugar-Sweetened Soft Drinks?

Sugar hasn't always been regarded as toxic. In fact, for most of human history, it's been considered medicinal. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, when people didn't have cars or washing machines or vacuum cleaners or power mowers, drinking an 8-ounce (240 ml) glass of sugar-sweetened soft drinks had very little effect on health, other than to provide energy between meager meals. As recently as 1964, Julie Andrews could sing "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go the most delightful way" without protests from mothers who wanted to ban the movie, Mary Poppins, as a bad influence on their children's diets.
In the twenty-first century, sugar usually is toxic. People get so little exercise that their bodies readily turn sugars into fat. 
In North America, where soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, the problem is even worse. Instead of burning fructose, at least after the first 25 grams (100 calories) or so a day, the liver turns it into fat. The body can burn the glucose released from table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, but only about 600 calories a day, before glucose also has to be converted in to fat. 
In the United States and Canada, about half of people consume no sugar-sweetened soft drinks at all. Another 25 percent of North Americans consume up to 200 calories of sugar in soft drinks daily. That's about 100 calories more than the body can burn, and the rest has to be converted into fat, although only about one pound (half a kilo) of body fat a month. Another 20 percent of North Americans drink the equivalent of four 12-ounce (360 ml) sugar-sweetened soda pop daily, 500 calories a day or more, and 5 percent of North Americans drink even more. The extra calories don't translate directly into extra fat, but sometimes that is only because people gain so much weight that they start burning enormous numbers of calories just to move around.
The statistics indicate that drinking the equivalent a regular Coke or Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew a day begins to raise the risk of death. Over a 14-year-period, people who consume four sugar-sweetened sodas a day have have twice the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.

Aren't Artificial Sweeteners Just As Bad?

Similar increases in the risk of death just aren't found in long-term, large scale studies of people who drink artificially sweetened products. That doesn't mean that researchers haven't looked for them.
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  • Lim U, Subar AF, Mouw T, Hartge P, Morton LM, Stolzenberg-Solomon R, Campbell D, Hollenbeck AR, Schatzkin A. Consumption of aspartame-containing beverages and incidence of hematopoietic and brain malignancies. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2006 Sep. 15(9):1654-9.
  • Olney JW, Farber NB, Spitznagel E, Robins LN. Increasing brain tumor rates: is there a link to aspartame? J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 1996 Nov. 55(11):1115-23.
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