The danger of artificial sweeteners is back in the news. A new study links use of artificial sweeteners to premature death.

The danger of artificial sweeteners is back in the news. A new study links use of artificial sweeteners to premature death. The study, published in the September issue of JAMA Internal Medicine tracked the mortality rate among 450,000 European consumers of soft drinks, both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened, for 16 years.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that people who drank two or more glasses of sugar-sweetened beverages a day were eight percent more likely to die young compared to those who consumed less than one glass a month. What was surprising is that those who drank artificially sweetened drinks were 26 percent more likely to die prematurely than those who rarely drank artificially sweetened beverages.

There have been concerns about artificial sweeteners since the early 1970s, when studies found that giving large amounts of saccharin to lab rats caused cancer, prompting a warning label on products containing saccharin. Subsequent research has found saccharin to be safe for human consumption, and the warning labels have since been removed. Since then, several other artificial sweeteners have passed the testing required to be considered safe additions to our food supply.

So why, then, did the people in the study who used artificially sweetened beverages have a higher likelihood of premature death? First, we need to remember that this was an observational study that does not prove cause and effect. There are many questions that were not answered that could help us understand these results: Were the people who drank diet beverages already overweight or obese? Or did they have diabetes or other health concerns? Did they tend to lead a less healthy lifestyle overall? What was the specific artificial sweetener used? What was the rest of their diet like? Answers to any of these questions could help explain the study’s outcome.

No doubt, more research is needed to determine the long-term effects of artificial sweetener use. The most reliable studies are controlled, clinical studies, which are difficult to do. Asking people to stick to a specific diet regimen for decades and being able to assure that they do so just isn’t practical.

Meanwhile, we do have some well-documented evidence that too much sugar in our diet can increase our risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and earlier death. This is mainly because diets high in sugar lead to weight gain and obesity. Being overweight changes the way insulin is used by the body. It increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, it causes elevated cholesterol levels, and it increases inflammation. All of these factors increase risk for heart disease, stroke, cancers and earlier death.

Consumption of soda has decreased in the past few years, as more people become more aware of the need to cut back on sugar. If you are caught in the habit of drinking either sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened beverages, you would benefit from replacing these beverages with healthier ones. Water, unsweetened tea, coffee and even 100-percent fruit juice mixed with seltzer water are better options. An occasional soda or diet soda isn’t likely to cause any ill effect — just don’t make it a habit.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.