Are Better For You Reduced Sugar Soft Drinks Worsening the Obesity Epidemic?

Better for you (BFY) reduced-sugar soft drinks may be considered a godsend by both individual dieters and public health institutions as a key tool for controlling the global obesity epidemic, but, as ever, things are not so clear cut. Euromonitor International looks at the emerging debate, which seeks to blame reduced sugar carbonates for rising obesity rather than viewing them as a solution to the problem.

Reduced sugar soft drinks on an upward trajectory

Common sense dictates that if an overweight person, whose weight is stable, swaps his/her daily intake of two cans of a regular carbonated soft drink, with a combined caloric value of almost 300kcal, with an artificially sweetened, calorie-free version, this will result in slow, but steady weight loss. So, by implementing this substitution, the individual can expect to drop a pound around every two weeks, as long as all other parameters (diet, exercise) remain unchanged. Vice versa, if a person adds extra calories to his/her diet through the consumption of soft drinks, weight gain is the likely result.

Driven by this rationale, BFY reduced sugar soft drinks are on a global victory march, further propelled by ever-improving concoctions of artificial sweeteners, giving rise to good tasting low-calorie products that are barely distinguishable from their high-calorie counterparts. The launch of Coca Cola Zero in 2006, for example, famously captured the young male demographic, a consumer group, which had previously shunned low-calorie drinks due to their perceived “girly” image.

Euromonitor International health and wellness data confirms that BFY reduced sugar soft drinks performed well in 2010, achieving a value sales gain of 7% and accruing global retail value sales of US$37.5 billion. This represents a definite improvement on the previous year’s paltry 1% increase, blamed on the recession. However, considering that, in this very difficult year (2009), overall global soft drinks value sales remained utterly stagnant, BFY reduced sugar soft drinks still triumphed by registering at least a small increase.

BFY reduced sugar soft drinks has slowly been increasing its share of soft drinks. On a global level, retail volume sales of reduced sugar carbonates, for instance, accounted for 16% of retail volume sales of carbonates in 2010. In 2002, when Euromonitor International commenced its health and wellness research, the share stood at just 13%.

Reduced sugar carbonates favoured by public health policymakers

Policymakers appear to regard low-calorie soft drinks as part of the solution to the worldwide obesity crisis, or at least they believe that such products are not compounding the problem any further. In 2010, both Denmark and Romania started levying increased taxation rates (“fat taxes”) on a number of food and beverage products considered to be “obesogenic”, including standard carbonates. Low-calorie versions are not just immune from taxation increases, but are a favoured option; in Denmark, for example, taxes on sugary soft drinks have been hiked up by 25%, while, for sugar-free versions, the government has actually lowered them.

Could diet drinks cause weight gain?

However, the evidence linking consumption of standard soft drinks with excess body weight and confirming low-calorie drinks indeed have a positive impact on weight management, despite what common sense and a number of studies might suggest, is by no means conclusive. A growing body of research is now starting to emerge, suggesting that low-calorie, artificially-sweetened carbonates may not be conducive to combating obesity after all.

A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity Reviews in May 2011 failed to show that reducing the intake of standard carbonates resulted in a BMI (Body Mass Index) decrease in a number of study populations. The analysis, involving 12 randomised controlled trials, was carried out by the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the US. The researchers also recommended that more targeted randomised controlled trials measuring overweight individuals’ responses to low-calorie soft drinks were needed.

On that note, disconcerting findings were reported in a study carried out by the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Science Center, San Antonio, and presented at the American Diabetes Association’s Scientific Sessions in San Diego in June 2011. The researchers’ objective was to shed light on the relationship between soft drinks consumption and the long-term change in waist circumference by comparing 474 reduced sugar carbonates drinkers with regular carbonates drinkers monitoring them for an average of 9.5 years.

The study came to the startling conclusion that those who most frequently consumed reduced sugar soft drinks (ie at a rate of two or more a day) saw their waistlines bulge by 500% more than those who did not consume these types of drinks. This ties in with another study conducted at Northwestern University in Chicago this year, which discovered that obese people were, in fact, actually the core consumer group of diet sodas, thus calling into question the effectiveness of BFY reduced sugar soft drinks as a weight management aid.

Study results such as these beg the question whether a direct casual link exists between BFY reduced sugar soft drinks consumption and obesity, and there are a number of so-far-unproven theories seeking a scientific rationale for such a connection. These hypotheses usually centre around the assumption that artificial sweeteners prime the body into expecting calories, and that the failure of these being delivered triggers intense cravings for food and sweet drinks, causing people to overeat. One researcher at the University of Texas, who was involved in conducting the previously mentioned study, suggested that artificial sweeteners could be appetite inducing, and/or that these ingredients may inhibit certain brain cells responsible for creating a feeling of fullness.

Reduced sugar carbonates are here to stay

On the other hand, any apparent correlation between BFY reduced sugar soft drinks consumption and being overweight could well be explained by the very human behaviour of people trying to compensate for their excessive food intake by consuming such drinks. Jokes are often made about overweight individuals, who are observed ordering a high-calorie, “super-sized” fast food meal accompanied by a diet drink. This scenario, where diet drinks serve as a damage limitation measure, rather than forming part of a conscious effort to lose weight, is likely to be a common one, possibly warranting further investigation, followed by strategies effecting behavioural change.

All things considered, diet drinks are unlikely to ever emerge as an undisputed culprit in the line up of obesity-causing agents. At worst, they may be blamed for indulging the rosy self deception that they “cancel out” excess calories consumed through food, thereby contributing to perpetuate an environment conducive to overconsumption. For the average consumer, however, unless presented with the highly unlikely, solid proof that artificial sweeteners are damaging to health, this public-health-oriented argument focused on the “obesogenic environment” will have little impact on individual consumption patterns, and diet sodas will continue to be regarded as a palatable and convenient substitute for high-calorie soft drinks.

Euromonitor International predicts that the demand for BFY reduced sugar soft drinks will continue more or less unabated. Among the 32 markets in which Euromonitor International conducts in-depth health and wellness research, the highest growth over the 2010-2015 forecast period is predicted to come from China, where a constant value sales increase of 89% is predicted, followed by Thailand, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil and Russia, all of which are expected to enjoy increases of around the 50% mark.