Soft Drinks

Soft drinks bosses have raised questions over the quality of new research that warns people who drink artificially sweetened beverages are more likely to suffer from the heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.

Adults who reported drinking two litres or more of sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened drinks per week had a higher risk of an irregular heart rhythm, according to a study published today in Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association.

The study also found that drinking one litre or less per week of pure, unsweetened juice, such as orange or vegetable juice, was associated with a lower risk of atrial fibrillation (AFib). The study could not confirm whether the sweetened drinks caused the condition, though the association remained after accounting for a person’s genetic susceptibility.

The report is the latest controversy to hit artificial sweeteners, after a WHO report last year found they increased the risk of a raft of health problems over the long term, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. 

The new study of health data from the UK Biobank is among the first to assess a possible link between sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened beverages and AFib.

More than 12 million people are expected to have AFib by 2030, according to the American Heart Association’s 2024 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics.

“Our study’s findings cannot definitively conclude that one beverage poses more health risk than another due to the complexity of our diets and because some people may drink more than one type of beverage,” said lead study author Dr Ningjian Wang, a researcher at the Shanghai Ninth People’s Hospital and Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine.

“However, based on these findings, we recommend that people reduce or even avoid artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverages whenever possible. Do not take it for granted that drinking low-sugar and low-calorie artificially sweetened beverages is healthy. It may pose potential health risks.”

Read more:

However, Gavin Partington, director general of the BSDA, said there were major issues with the research that made it unreliable.

“As the authors of this study themselves admit, this is observational research which, firstly, cannot prove cause, and which, secondly, involves data that could be subject to memory errors or bias from the participants.

“All soft drinks, whatever their ingredients, are safe to consume as part of a balanced diet, not least fruit juice, a 150ml portion of which counts as one of your 5 a day. Just under 70% of soft drinks sold in the UK in 2022 were low or no-sugar, according to figures from GlobalData, and this side of the market has grown in recent years.”