In a large group of men followed for 20 years, drinking regular soda and other sugary drinks often meant a person was more likely to get diabetes, but that was not true of artificially sweetened soft drinks, or coffee or tea.
Replacing sugary drinks with diet versions in fact seems to be a safe and healthy alternative, the report, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said.
"There are multiple alternatives to regular soda," said Frank Hu, one of the study's authors, to Reuters Health.
"Diet soda is perhaps not the best alternative, but moderate consumption is not going to have any appreciable harmful effects."
Prior studies had suggested that people who drink diet soda regularly might be more likely to get diabetes than those who stay away from artificially sweetened drinks, but the recent study indicates that the link is a result of other factors common to both diet soda drinkers and people with diabetes, including being overweight.
Hu and his colleagues analyzed data from more than 40,000 men who were followed between 1986 and 2006, during which time they regularly filled out questionnaires on their medical status and dietary habits, including how many servings of regular and diet sodas, and other drinks, consumed every week.
About 7% of the men reported that they were diagnosed with diabetes at some point in the study.
Men who drank the most sugar-sweetened beverages, about one serving a day on average, were 16% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than men who never drank those beverages. The link was mostly due to soda and other carbonated beverages. Drinking non-carbonated sugar-sweetened fruit drinks such as lemonade was not linked with a higher risk of diabetes.
When nothing else was accounted for, men who drank a lot of diet soda and other diet drinks were also more likely to get diabetes. However, once the men's weight, blood pressure and cholesterol was taken into account, those drinks were not related to diabetes risk.
"People who are at risk for diabetes or obesity... Those may be the people who are more likely to choose artificial sweeteners because they may be more likely to be dieting," said Rebecca Brown, an endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health, to Reuters Health.
Drinking coffee on a daily basis, both regular and decaffeinated, was linked to a lower risk of diabetes, perhaps due to antioxidants or vitamins or minerals in coffee.
Brown, who has studied artificial sweeteners but was not involved in the current research, added that while there are still some health concerns about artificial sweeteners, none have been proven.
"I certainly think that we have better evidence that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages increases health risks," she said.
"Certainly reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by any means (including substitution with diet drinks) is probably a good thing."
From the April 18, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.