People with diabetes or who are managing their weight may choose artificially sweetened drinks to limit their calories. These beverages satisfy the sweet tooth without the high number of calories in sugary drinks. However, artificially sweetened drinks may not be a healthy alternative and may even harmful to your heart health, according to a new study by the American College of Cardiology.

What are Artificially Sweetened Drinks?

Manufacturers may add natural or artificial sweeteners to juices, sodas and sports drinks. Natural sweeteners include high-fructose corn syrup, sugar or fruit juice concentrates. The Mayo Clinic reported that natural sweeteners in low-calorie drinks are obtained from natural sources, such as herbs and sugar itself.

If artificial sweeteners are on the label, the product may contain advantame, aspartame, neotame or other synthetic sugar substitutes approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some studies back in the 1970s linked artificial sweeteners to cancer, specifically saccharin to bladder cancer in lab rats. Yet the findings were not solid enough to link all sugar substitutes to cancer. So, the National Cancer Institute and many other health agencies approved these sweeteners as generally safe, even among pregnant women, in limited amounts.

Recent Studies on Artificially Sweetened Drinks

A recent study by the American College of Cardiology (ACC) suggested that artificially sweetened drinks are associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular or heart disease, and are not a healthy alternative to sugary beverages. People who consume a lot of these drinks might have a higher risk of cardiovascular events.

Researchers looked at data from over 100,00 people, who were asked to complete three web-based, 24-hour dietary records every six months. These revealed how many sugary drinks and how many artificially sweetened drinks they consumed. The researchers defined artificially sweetened drinks as those that contained non-nutritive sweeteners, which have no calories or are low in calories. Sugary drinks were products with a sugar content of 5% or more.

The team monitored the participants for 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, looking for signs of cardiovascular disease, which included a stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), myocardial infarction (heart attack) or acute coronary syndrome.

The researchers found that 1,379 participants developed a first incidence of cardiovascular disease. Those who consumed either, or both, sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages were at higher risk of cardiovascular events than people who did not consume either type of beverage.

While the findings showed a connection, researchers recommended further, large-scale research to establish a causal link between sugary and artificially sweetened beverage and heart disease.

"Our study suggests artificially sweetened beverages may not be a healthy substitute for sugar drinks, and these data provide additional arguments to fuel the current debate on taxes, labeling and regulation of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages," said doctoral student Eloi Chazelas, an author of the study, in an ACC press release.

Another study published in 2017 in the American Heart Association journal, Stroke, associated artificially sweetened drinks with stroke and dementia. More than 2,800 adults were examined for their regular intake of artificially sweetened drinks. In the 10-year follow-up, there were 97 cases of stroke cases and 81 of dementia. But the connection was not found in sugar-sweetened beverages.

Popular Drinks and Sugar Content

A chart by Harvard University showed how much sugar and calories are in 12 ounces of some popular beverages:

  • Cranberry juice cocktail: 200 calories and 12 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Orange soda: 170 calories and 11 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Orange juice: 170 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Cola: 150 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Sports drink: 90 calories and five teaspoons of sugar.

Two drinks, seltzer with a splash of juice and coffee with a sugar packet, had the lowest scores, at 15 calories and one teaspoon of sugar each. The chart noted that the FDA has defined products with reduced calories as having 110 calories and seven teaspoons of sugar. (One teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams.) The food industry wants to bring this down further to 50 calories and three teaspoons.

If you want to eat or drink something sweet, you may do so but in moderation. If you have diabetes or are watching your weight, consult with your doctor about replacing sugary beverages with artificially sweetened drinks.

Ralph Chen is an enthusiast of medical topics and advanced technologies. When not writing, he spends time playing popular PC games.