Correlation does not equal causation, aspartame edition.

Fresh on the heels of Pepsi’s big announcement last week, this article came to my attention (just a recirculation to increase hits, as the article is more than a year old). The article summarized a study done as part of the Women’s Health Initiative Observation Study which showed that postmenopausal women who consumed 2 or more artificially sweetened drinks per day had a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular event and death from a related disease. Interestingly, as the article highlights, the researchers controlled for many physical, social, and dietary factors. They found that on average, the 2+ diet-drink-a-day group were younger, had higher body mass indices, and higher prevalence of diabetes and hypertension.

However, the Eat Local Grown (ELG) article failed to include the study author’s own remarks that the findings from the research show ONLY an association and not causation, and that it is too soon to encourage people to modify their behavior. Note: the study author’s remarks are included in the article linked to by ELG, directly below the sections they highlight. I am fortunate enough to have access to the original research paper, and it bears the same cautions, as well as potential study limitations including retrospective behavior reporting, selection bias, and potential for inadequate correction for confounding factors.

Like with most all areas of health and nutrition, we’re always learning; our knowledge base is not static, and neither are our best practices and guidelines. I suggest this article for a really great overview of where the issue of aspartame currently stands (and definitely read the review article linked within). There are some recent hypotheses regarding the relationship of artificial sweeteners, weight gain, and dietary intake patterns: essentially the sweet taste separated from the calories may lead us to over consume energy as we seek the caloric “reward”. Looking ahead, this could have some important implications, but that is a long way down the road. (I’d also like to point out here that it seems that the “natural” non-caloric sweetener darling Stevia would likely have this same effect. Food for thought). As many people have noted, the more important issue we should be tackling is “why do all of our foods have to taste so sweet in the first place?”.

It may be that down the road artificial sweeteners will prove very detrimental to health. It wouldn’t be the first time this would happen for a commonly used ingredient (cough-cocaine-cough), but based on the evidence we have, it doesn’t look likely. Even if it IS true, that doesn’t make sugar by default the best choice, as we know that it comes with its own deleterious health effects. Neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners need to be included in order to have a healthy and balanced diet, so the choice is up to each of us whether we want to include either, or neither of these sweeteners. But so long as we demand sweet consumables, sweeteners will be part of life. So long as we remain obsessed with “losing weight” while maintaining the ability to over-indulge, artificial sweeteners will be present.

To answer their question: no, this is not the end of diet soda.

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