sugar sweetener

Back in July a report in the BMJ caused headlines around the world after linking artificially sweetened diet drinks to 10s of thousands of cases of diabetes in the UK - and millions in the US.

Despite admitting that its claims on artificial sweeteners such as aspartame were based on “low quality” evidence, the report by academics at Cambridge University has now become an established part of the “evidence” being levelled against the soft drinks industry.

Regardless of the gaping holes in the research, its findings were used by health groups in evidence to MPs on the health committee last month without once being challenged, as campaigners extended their call for a sugar tax to cover diet as well as added-sugar drinks.

Now an even more shocking scientific claim has formed the basis of the latest health scare to rattle the soft drinks industry - and this time it does not stop at artificially sweeteners.

If the study by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, published in BMJ sister publication Heart, is to be believed, we could be equally at risk from drinks using natural sweeteners like stevia, too.

‘Diet Coke Heart Risk’ screamed the front page headline of today’s The Sun, just one of the frenzied media responses to the study, which found men who consumed at least two servings of sweetened beverages (it did not specify if they were artificially or naturally sweetened) had a 23% higher risk of heart failure compared with those who did not.

Claiming to be the first study to link sweetened drinks to heart failure, the biggest strength of the report is its size, having involved a study of a 50,000 men over 12 years.

But the authors admit that it falls well short of providing a causal link with heart failure with any of the vast array of different products it suggests are a risk. Those products included naturally sweetened, artificially sweetened and added-sugar drinks, but excluded tea, coffee and juice.

In fairness, they are up front about its many limitations (much more so than the previous BMJ study and its uber-hyped press release).

Not least, they point out that it is based on a notoriously unreliable system of self-completed questionnaires, as well as the fact its findings only applied to middle-aged and elderly white men, were inapplicable to certain other countries, and might not wash for younger groups or women either, for that matter.

But surely this will count for little when it comes to the impact on an increasingly bamboozled public, who have yet another doomsday scenario to worry about - either that, or, more likely, to add to the long list of contradictory health messages they already completely ignore.

By making no distinction between natural, artificially sweetened or sugar-added products, the study has, intentionally or not, sent out a message that when it comes to heart failure at least, sugar is no better, or no worse, than the alternatives - drink sweetened beverages and they will all get you in the end.

No doubt this will be great news for those who believe we should be drinking just water and nothing else, but perhaps not such good news for the 22% of soft drinks in the world’s top 10 markets that Mintel Research for The Grocer last week revealed were low or no-sugar variants.

As the war on sugar becomes ever more a war on sweetness itself - and some would argue on consumer choice - the industry should now expect more attacks on this second front from health groups that have shown they are not always worried about the facts getting in the way of a good story.