In health news that won’t come as a shock to many, ordering a Diet Coke with your Big Mac meal doesn’t make the burger and fries any better for you.
A new study suggests it could actually have an adverse effect, by changing the way our brain reacts to the taste of sweetness, whether it’s real or faux sugar.
But what’s been discovered is quite interesting indeed.
The results are still preliminary, but they suggest the sweetener alone, when just consumed in a drink, has little effect on how our bodies process sugar.
It’s when we pair it with carbohydrates that we hit trouble times – putting a severe dent in everyone’s good intentions when they sip a diet soft drink alongside their ‘cheat meals’ for the week.
Hitting the sweet spot
A group of scientists from Yale University embarked on a study to determine what sort of effect the artificial sweetener sucralose, most commonly known as Splenda, has on the body’s metabolism levels.
“When we set out to do this study, the question that was driving us was whether or not repeated consumption of an artificial sweetener would lead to a degrading of the predictive ability of sweet taste,” neuroscientist and senior author Dana Small said.
“This would be important because sweet-taste perception might lose the ability to regulate metabolic responses that prepare the body for metabolising glucose or carbohydrates in general.”
They took 45 people of good health, aged between 20 and 45, and monitored them as they changed their diets only to include a series of drinks over a two-week period.
This is where researchers found a result they weren’t expecting.
In one of the control groups, participants were given drinks containing the carbohydrate maltodextrin, to even out the calories of the sugar.
It was these participants whose brains showed a notable reaction to the sweet flavour (maltodextrin did not add to the sweet taste). Their insulin sensitivities and glucose metabolism were also affected.
Just to make sure it wasn’t the maltodextrin causing these effects, they set a second control group on a seven-day course where they drank just maltodextrin drinks, with no sweeteners. No change.
Therefore, it was highly likely the combination of artificial sweetener – Splenda in this case – and carbs that caused the body and brain’s particular reactions.
What does this mean for your diet soda?
“Perhaps the effect resulted from the gut generating inaccurate messages to send to the brain about the number of calories present,” Dr Small surmised.
“The gut would be sensitive to the sucralose and the maltodextrin and signal that twice as many calories are available than are actually present.
“Over time, these incorrect messages could produce negative effects by altering the way the brain and body respond to sweet taste.
“Previous studies in rats have shown that changes in the ability to use sweet taste to guide behaviour can lead to metabolic dysfunction and weight gain over time.
“We think this is due to the consumption of artificial sweeteners with energy.
“Our findings suggest that it’s OK to have a Diet Coke once in a while, but you shouldn’t drink it with something that has a lot of carbs.
“If you’re eating French fries, you’re better off drinking a regular Coke or – better yet – water.”