About one in five Americans enjoy a diet soda every single day.1 Diet soda uses artificial sweeteners to provide its drinkers a 0 calorie and 0 sugar beverage. A regular can of soda, on the other hand, has 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar. To some, this makes diet soda the so-called “healthier” option between the two by helping to limit your added sugar intake. But even with zero sugar on the diet label, the only thing healthy about a diet soda is the lack of regular soda. Diet soda has zero calories and thus zero nutritional value.
There are healthier and more delicious alternatives for getting your bubbly fix. In this blog, we break down exactly what’s in your can of diet soda as we share 4 healthier alternatives to try instead!
Diet Soda Ingredients
So what exactly are you putting in your body every time you throw back a can of diet soda? Here’s the back label of two popular diet soda brands:
Image source: Mel Magazine
Image source: Water Butlers
The top ingredients you’ll see in these labels and/or on the labels of other diet soda brands include:
- Caramel color
- Phosphoric acid
- Potassium benzoate
- Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K)
Don’t worry if you think you’re reading a different language, because most people doesn’t recognize many of these ingredients too! Aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-K are artificial sweeteners that give diet soda its sweet taste without any of the calories. While the body can't metabolize them, they're anywhere from 200 to 600 times sweeter than table sugar, making them a popular zero-calorie or low-calorie sugar alternative.
Let’s break down the sweeteners and other ingredients commonly found in diet soda:
Caramel color is a food coloring added to a lot of diet and regular sodas to create that familiar dark coloring. It’s made with ammonium compounds, which can, in the manufacturing process, form a chemical compound called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI).3 While a study from 2007 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer found the compound to be potentially carcinogenic to humans, a 2020 report by the FDA found that small amounts of the compound are safe for human consumption.4 5
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly sold under the names Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin®.2 It contains a little over 2% of the number of calories of table sugar but is over 200 times sweeter, making it a popular low-calorie sweetener for diet soda beverages.2 It is FDA-approved and featured in over 100 studies pointing to its safety.2 However, aspartame, along with other artificial sweeteners, is still surrounded by controversy in the scientific community due to the lack of research on the long-term health effects of non-metabolized compounds.6
While both these diet soda brands use aspartame, sucralose is another common non-nutritive artificial sweetener you’ll often find in diet soda. Sucralose, also sold under the brand name Splenda®, has zero calories and is over 600 times sweeter than table sugar.2 While many studies point to its safety, there is a lot of controversy around its potential effects on blood sugar, insulin, and gut health.7
Phosphoric acid is a colorless and odorless phosphorus-containing acid that both gives diet soda its tangy or tart flavor and helps protect the drink from unwanted bacteria growth. Phosphoric acid helps keep our bones strong, although too much of it could put you at risk for osteoporosis and heart disease.8
Potassium benzoate is an FDA-approved chemical preservative used by manufacturers to extend a product’s shelf life. A small amount in your diet soda can help protect your drink from mold, yeast, and bacteria.9 Given its tangy flavor, it also doubles as a flavoring agent. Another common chemical preservative you might find in diet soda includes sodium benzoate, which is very similar to potassium benzoate.
Although generally recognized as safe by the FDA, potassium benzoate can form benzene, a known carcinogen, when combined with ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C9. After this discovery, the American Beverage Association put new standards in place to reduce that concern. But just to be safe, keep an eye out on that back label for any combination of ascorbic acid and potassium benzoate.9
Citric acid is an acid naturally found in citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, and some berries. It’s one of the world’s most common food additives because it works as both a preservative and flavoring agent. However, the citric acid you’ll find in your diet soda is a man-made or artificial version of the acid, meaning it doesn’t offer the same benefits as you’d get biting into an orange. Even so, this FDA-approved man-made citric acid helps keep your soda fresh and gives it a tangy flavor.10
Acesulfame potassium, also called acesulfame K or Ace-K, is another FDA-approved artificial sweetener commonly found in diet soda. It's also sold under the brand names Sunett® and Sweet One®.2 It’s over 200 times sweeter than table sugar but offers zero calories. There are fewer studies on the safety of acesulfame K than aspartame and sucralose, with some pointing to potential negative gut health effects.11 12
Is Diet Soda Bad for You?
As evidenced by these made-in-a-lab-sounding ingredients, there is nothing nutritive about a diet soda. The ingredients above are either providing a sweet flavor or helping to extend the shelf life. Other than a little bit of phosphorus, there is not one product in there that benefits your health.
So the question becomes, is diet soda bad for your health? The answer is not straightforward given there is a lot of debate on this topic. Several studies say that diet soda can help limit your intake of added sugars compared to regular soda. This often makes it a recommended choice for weight loss or those with type 2 diabetes.
However, it’s worth noting that there is no conclusive evidence that diet soda reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes or other health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke.13 What research does show is that there is a relationship between the consumption of artificial sweeteners found in diet soda and a higher risk of certain health outcomes. These include:
- Glucose intolerance 12
- Obesity 7 12
- Type 2 diabetes13 14
- Heart conditions such as heart attacks or high blood pressure15
- Dementia and strokes14 15
The issue with a lot of the research is it’s hard to pinpoint if diet soda was the direct cause of these health outcomes, or if people who are at a higher risk of these health outcomes just happen to also be drinking more diet soda.14
For example, if someone is at risk of diabetes they might be drinking more diet soda to help limit their sugar intake. This makes it hard to know if diet soda is the cause or just a correlation. That’s why the evidence is mostly inconclusive on the exact health impacts of diet soda. Clearly, we don't have a solid understanding of why a relationship exists between diet soda and negative health impacts. But a relationship does exist and the scientific community has a few theories why:
- Increased sugar cravings: Although artificial sweeteners aren’t sugar, they taste like sugar. This means that sweeteners could be training your brain to crave the sugar that the sweetener is trying to replace. This makes it harder to resist the temptation of sugar-filled beverages and food items. Or makes non-sugar items less appealing! This puts you more at risk of a high-sugar diet.
- No calories, no satisfaction: When your body tastes the sweetness of your diet soda, it gets excited because it’s anticipating extra calories (and energy) entering the body.14 When that doesn't happen, this leaves your body unsatisfied which triggers heightened food cravings.
- Insulin confusion: Your body increases your insulin production and raises your blood glucose levels as part of that sugar anticipation. While we used to assume that this didn’t happen with a non-sugar sweetener, research has found that this isn’t the case.16 This means that the more you drink diet soda, the higher your likelihood could be for insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
- Marketing misunderstandings: Given that companies often market diet soda as a healthy beverage choice, it’s not uncommon for someone to reward themselves for choosing a diet soda. “Well I had a diet soda for lunch, so I deserve this piece of cake!” While it’s true that you saved yourself from the high sugar content of a soda, you’ve now just replaced those sugar calories with another unhealthy food item. When this happens frequently, this can add up to some unwanted health impacts.
While we can’t pinpoint the “why” surrounding diet soda’s negative effect on our health yet, we do know that it isn’t the best choice when it comes to supporting your overall health.
Top 4 Healthy Alternatives to Diet Soda
Based on the evidence, it appears that switching from soda to diet soda is a great short-term strategy to cut out added sugar, but potentially not a recommended long-term solution. Especially when there are other alternatives to turn to instead that offer proven health benefits. Here are some of our favorites:
Water is the ultimate hydration soda alternative. But for most people looking to replace a fizzy beverage like soda, it can be hard to go cold turkey to plain water. To fulfill your need for a carbonated beverage while still staying healthy, a great choice is sparkling or carbonated water.
Not only does this help keep you hydrated throughout the day but most offer zero calories without any of the artificial sweeteners you’d find in diet soda. To help replace the sweetness of soda, choose sparkling water with a natural fruit flavoring or infuse your sparkling water with fruit from home.
If you do need something sweeter than sparkling water, options that contain natural ingredients like stevia leaf (and other ingredients you can pronounce!) may be a better alternative to tackle your sweet tooth. OLIPOP contains natural flavors, no artificial sweeteners (or artificial anything!), 9 grams of fiber, and 2-5 grams of sugar. This gives you that satisfying taste without putting your body at risk.
What’s even better is that OLIPOP is more than just a soda replacement, but contributes to a healthy and well-balanced diet thanks to a combination of plant fiber, prebiotics, and botanicals. These help support your microbiome and benefit your digestive health while creating a sweet and healthy taste that even a sugar-loaded soda can’t compete with.
Want to learn more about how OLIPOP’s ingredients support your digestive health? Check out our blog post on OLIPOP & Digestive Health: Everything You Need To Know or shop our sodas to experience those digestive health benefits first-hand!
Another super hydrating soda alternative option is coconut water. Coconut water comes from the center of young, green coconuts and has a sweet, almost nutty flavor.17 Not only does it contain way less sugar than regular soda but it’s also low in calories, free of fat and cholesterol, and contains powerful electrolytes like potassium to replace any fluids you lose throughout the day or after a tough workout. This makes it a much healthier but also sweet-tasting option to help kick your soda habit.
Coffee or Tea
For some people, the goal of soda is the caffeine boost that the drink provides. To replace that caffeine, a great place to turn is coffee or tea. Both of these drinks offer numerous health benefits and can substitute for soda sweetness by adding milk or other dairy products. However, be careful not to add too much sugar to your coffee or tea, or else you’ll just end up replacing one high-sugar beverage with another!
Healthy Alternatives to Diet Soda: The Takeaway
Although it can limit your sugar and calorie intake, diet soda is still not a healthy choice. While the jury is still out on the exact role diet soda plays on your health, it’s safe to say that there is some relationship between a high intake of diet soda and negative health outcomes.
Thankfully, there are some delicious and nutritious options out there such as sparkling water, OLIPOP, coconut water, and coffee or tea, that can offer health benefits without sacrificing a sweet taste. With the help of these options, it’s easy to kick that soda habit to the curb!
- Fakhouri, Tala H.I., et al. “Consumption of Diet Drinks in the United States, 2009‒2010.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 Nov. 2015, www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db109.htm.
- “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 8 Feb. 2018, www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states.
- Smith, Tyler J. S., Julia A. Wolfson, Ding Jiao, Michael J. Crupain, Urvashi Rangan, Amir Sapkota, Sara N. Bleich, and Keeve E. Nachman. “Caramel Color in Soft Drinks and Exposure to 4-Methylimidazole: A Quantitative Risk Assessment.” Edited by Maciej Buchowski. PLOS ONE 10, no. 2 (February 18, 2015): e0118138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118138.
- “Caramel Color: The Health Risk That May Be in Your Soda.” Consumer Reports, Consumer Reports, 10 Feb. 2014, www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/01/caramel-color-the-health-risk-that-may-be-in-your-soda/index.htm.
- “Questions & Answers About 4-MEI.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 27 Mar. 2020, www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-answers-about-4-mei.
- Sharma, Arun, et al. “Artificial Sweeteners as a Sugar Substitute: Are They Really Safe?” Indian Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 48, no. 3, 2016, p. 237., doi:10.4103/0253-7613.182888.
- Vani Hari, Feeding You Lies: How to Unravel the Food Industry’s Playbook and Reclaim Your Health (Hay House Inc, 2019)
- Tucker, Katherine L, Kyoko Morita, Ning Qiao, Marian T Hannan, L Adrienne Cupples, and Douglas P Kiel. “Colas, but Not Other Carbonated Beverages, Are Associated with Low Bone Mineral Density in Older Women: The Framingham Osteoporosis Study.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 84, no. 4 (October 1, 2006): 936–42.
- Danahy, Anne. “What Is Potassium Benzoate?” Healthy Eating | SF Gate, SFGATE, 14 Dec. 2018, healthyeating.sfgate.com/potassium-benzoate-11968.html.
- Bhargava, Hansa D. “Citric Acid Health Benefits.” WebMD, WebMD, 23 June 2020, www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-citric-acid#1.
- Ruiz-Ojeda, Francisco Javier, et al. “Effects of Sweeteners on the GUT MICROBIOTA: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials.” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 10, no. Suppl 1, 2019, doi:10.1093/advances/nmy037.
- Bian, Xiaoming, et al. “The Artificial Sweetener Acesulfame Potassium Affects the Gut Microbiome and Body Weight Gain in Cd-1 Mice.” PLOS ONE, vol. 12, no. 6, 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0178426.
- Cheng Chen, “Comment to ‘Sugar-Sweetened Beverage and Diet Soda Consumption and the 7-Year Risk for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Middle-Aged Japanese Men,’” European Journal of Nutrition 53, no. 4 (April 9, 2014): 1135–1135, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-014-0680-5
- McMillen, Matt. “Is Drinking Diet Soda a Health Risk?” Edited by Brunilda Nazario, WebMD, WebMD, 5 May 2017, www.webmd.com/diet/news/20170505/diet-soda-health-risks.
- “Is Diet Soda Bad for You? Everything You Need to Know.” Medical News Today, Healthline Media, 31 July 2019, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325919.
- “Just How Bad Is Diet Soda for You?” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 10 Oct. 2019, health.clevelandclinic.org/3-reasons-you-should-kick-your-diet-soda-habit/.
- Zelman, Kathleen M. “The Truth About Coconut Water.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/truth-about-coconut-water.
- Diet soda has zero calories and thus zero nutritional value
- The top ingredients you’ll see in diet soda labels include caramel color, aspartame, sucralose, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, citric acid, and acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K).
- We don't have a solid understanding of why a relationship exists between diet soda and negative health impacts. However, we know a relationship exists and the scientific community has a few theories.
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