Diet Drinks: What Impact Do They Have on Health and Can They Aid Weight Loss?

Diet Drinks: What Impact Do They Have on Health and Can They Aid Weight Loss?

Diet drinks, also referred to as low-calorie drinks, are often a popular choice for many of us when we desire something sweet but want to steer clear of traditional sugar. These beverages, with their lack of calories, can be seen as a beacon of hope, particularly during weight loss journeys when we’re striving to maintain a caloric deficit. However, does this imply that we can consume them without restraint? While they may be devoid of sugar, they do contain a range of other substances, often controversial artificial sweeteners. Therefore, what does this mean for our overall health when it comes to incorporating these drinks into our daily intake?

What are low-calorie drinks?

This group of beverages includes those with reduced sugar content, but it also encompasses sugar-free drinks, which we will discuss in more detail today. These are often referred to as diet drinks. Essentially, this category includes any beverage that tastes sweet but doesn’t contain sugar or any other source of energy (calories). Instead of sugar, they are sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners. This includes various light versions of carbonated drinks, lemonades, flavoured mineral waters, and other liquids. The reality is, almost every well-known beverage, such as Coca-Cola, Sprite, or Fanta, now has its sugar-free version.

Thanks to their zero or negligible energy value, these drinks have become a popular alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages. We turn to them when we are trying to lose weight or simply want to avoid consuming excessive amounts of simple sugars. As it is, the difference in energy content is quite significant. For instance, regular Coca-Cola contains approximately 11g of sugar and 45 calories per 100ml. However, sugar-free variants such as Coca-Cola Zero or Coca-Cola Light contain 0g of sugar and 0 calories. Their sweet taste is achieved through artificial sweeteners, but they also contain various other substances.

What substances do diet drinks typically contain?

  • sweeteners
  • food colourings
  • carbon dioxide
  • preservatives
  • organic acids (give the drink a sour taste)

In the article, you will learn more about the following artificial sweeteners:

Why are diet drinks so popular?

The absence of sugar and the negligible or even zero calorie content give the impression that these drinks are a great choice for those aiming to live a healthy lifestyle. They are seen as the ideal alternative to regular beverages, particularly for individuals striving to lose weight or avoid consuming empty calories. They are also highly favoured among diabetics and people who need to keep a close eye on their blood sugar levels (glycaemia).

However, all of the aforementioned factors can occasionally create the perception that one can indulge in diet drinks as much as they want and incorporate them into their daily fluid intake without any concerns. However, this is not entirely true. Even in this case, excessive intake of certain substances found in low-calorie drinks can have an impact on health. For instance, the well-known effects of various organic acids (such as phosphoric acid) on tooth enamel and bone health should be taken into consideration. Another important aspect is the ongoing discussion and research surrounding artificial sweeteners, which, according to studies conducted so far, may potentially influence the gut microbiota, among other things. [11,13]

what are low-calorie drinks

What are non-nutritive sweeteners, and which ones are most commonly found in diet drinks?

Non-nutritive sweeteners are substances that provide a sweet taste but do not contain any sugar or energy. In fact, they are often significantly sweeter and have a higher sweetening power compared to traditional sugar. Therefore, only small amounts are needed to achieve the desired sweetness. In most cases, our bodies do not metabolize these sweeteners at all. They satisfy our taste buds, pass through the body, and are eventually excreted totally unchanged.

Another group of sweeteners is called nutritive sweeteners, which include substances like xylitol or the popular chicory syrup. While these sweeteners do contain calories, they are usually present in smaller amounts compared to sugar. However, in diet drinks, these sweeteners are generally used less frequently than non-nutritive ones.

sweeteners in diet drinks

Non-nutritive sweeteners used in diet drinks

Diet drinks are primarily made using non-nutritive sweeteners, which are typically produced synthetically. They generally possess a much higher sweetening power compared to sucrose (regular sugar), often necessitating their combination due to their inherent bitter taste. It is important to note that only sweeteners that have undergone extensive research, deemed safe, and approved by regulatory authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be utilized in the production of beverages and food products. Approved sweeteners in the EU are identified by the letter “E” followed by a number, commonly known as “E-numbers”.

1. Acesulfame K

Acesulfame K (E950), also known by the code E950, is approximately 180-200 times sweeter than sucrose. However, it is commonly used in combination with other sweeteners because it leaves a characteristic bitter aftertaste on its own. This bitterness, however, diminishes when combined with other sweeteners. The body rapidly absorbs this sweetener, and since it is not metabolized, it is excreted unchanged. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for Acesulfame K is considered to be 9 mg/kg of body weight (BW). For a person weighing 70 kg, this corresponds to 630 mg of the sweetener. The estimated average daily intake ranges from 14-119 mg/day, which is well below the ADI value. [3,4,7]

2. Aspartame

Aspartame (E951) is composed of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid. This sweetener is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. However, it is not suitable for heat processing as it is thermally unstable and develops a bitter taste when exposed to heat. Despite this, it is widely used in many food products, including chewing gum, desserts, and ice cream, in addition to light beverages. However, individuals with phenylketonuria, a condition in which the body cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine that is formed from the metabolism of phenylalanine, should avoid it. The established acceptable daily intake (ADI) for a healthy individual is 40 mg/kg of body weight (BW). Therefore, a person weighing 70 kg can safely consume up to 2800 mg, while the typical intake ranges around 14-287 mg, well below the ADI value. [4,7,15]

3. Cyclamate

Cyclamate (E952) has a relatively low sweetening power compared to other sweeteners (it is 30 times sweeter than sugar). It also has a slightly bitter taste, which is why it is also commonly used in combination with other sweeteners. Although its use was banned for a period of time due to potential carcinogenic effects, it is now considered safe. Studies that indicated a risk of bladder cancer were conducted on rodents with the usage of high doses of cyclamate. However, studies in humans did not confirm such a risk. The acceptable daily intake is 7 mg/kg of body weight (BW), which for a person weighing 70 kg amounts to 490 mg. The average daily intake is approximately 28-168 mg. [4,7,16]

4. Neotame

Neotame (E961) is chemically similar to aspartame, but its sweetening power is 7000–13000 times higher than sucrose. It has a taste similar to regular sugar and even has the ability to enhance the overall taste of food. This sweetener is metabolized in the body, but unlike aspartame, this does not result in phenylalanine being released, making it safe for people with phenylketonuria to consume. Its acceptable daily intake (ADI) is set at 2 mg/kg of body weight (BW). For a person weighing 70 kg, this amounts to 140 mg of the sweetener, while the average intake ranges around 3.5 to 12 mg. [4,7]

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5. Saccharin

Saccharin (E954) is the first artificially created sweetener, and it has a sweetening power up to 300 times greater than sucrose. You can find it in the form of small tablets or powder, typically sold as a sweetener for people with diabetes. Scientists had concerns about the potential carcinogenic effects of this sweetener, specifically in relation to an increased risk of bladder cancer. However, subsequent research disproved these claims. The initial studies were conducted on mice, and further studies on humans have refuted these assumptions. Nowadays, the use of saccharin is considered safe. Its acceptable daily intake (ADI) is 2.5 mg/kg of body weight (BW). Therefore, a person with a body weight of 70 kg can safely consume 175 mg of saccharin per day, while the average intake ranges from approximately 7 to 140 mg. [4,7]

6. Sucralose

Sucralose (E955) has 500-600 times higher sweetening power than sucrose. Unlike most sweeteners, it doesn’t have any unpleasant aftertaste, making it widely used in the food industry. You can even purchase it as a standalone sweetener in the form of drops or in combination with other sweeteners in various syrups and products. Similar to other non-nutritive sweeteners, sucralose is not metabolized by the body. After consumption, it is rapidly absorbed and excreted unchanged. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for sucralose is 5 mg/kg of body weight (BW) per day. Therefore, a person weighing 70 kg can safely consume 350 mg of sucralose, while the average daily intake ranges from approximately 7 to 140 mg. [4,7]

7. Steviosides

Steviosides, also known as steviol glycosides (E960), are sweet-tasting substances derived from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. They are highly popular due to their natural origin and sweetening power, which is approximately 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Similar to sucralose, steviol glycosides are available in various forms such as drops, powder, or tablets, which can be used to sweeten foods and beverages. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is set at 4 mg/kg of body weight (BW). Therefore, a person weighing 70 kg can consume up to 280 mg of steviol glycosides per day, while the average daily intake ranges from approximately 91 to 238 mg. [17]

You can learn more about the properties, benefits, and health effects of stevia in our article: Stevia: 100% Natural Sweetener With Many Health Benefits

Overview of non-nutritive sweeteners and their properties

E number
Sweetening Power
ADI (mg/kg of body weight)
Estimated Daily Intake (mg/kg of body weight)
Acesulfame KE950180-200 times sweeter than sugar9 mg/kg BW0.2-1.7 mg/kg BW
AspartameE951200 times sweeter than sugar40 mg/kg BW6.8 mg/kg BW
CyclamateE95230 times sweeter than sugar7 mg/kg BW0.4-2.4 mg/kg BW
NeotameE9617 000-13 000 times sweeter than sugar2 mg/kg BW0.05-0.17 mg/kg BW
SaccharinE954300 times sweeter than sugar2.5 mg/kg BW0.1-2 mg/kg BW
SucraloseE955500-600 times sweeter than sugar5 mg/kg BW0.1-2 mg/kg BW
SteviosidesE960200-300 times sweeter than sugar4 mg/kg BW1.3-3.4 mg/kg BW

Are sweeteners harmful to health or do they have a place in a healthy diet?

It is likely that we would only find very few substances that don’t have negative health effects when consumed in excessive amounts. The same applies to sweeteners, as consuming them in disproportionate doses could potentially lead to certain undesirable effects. All sweeteners approved by the FDA and EFSA therefore have established Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) values, which indicate their safe daily consumption limits. As long as these limits are respected, they are considered safe for health.

However, it is actually quite difficult to exceed these ADI values through a normal diet, so there is no need to worry about surpassing them and causing health problems through regular food consumption. It still holds true that your diet should be diverse, based primarily on fresh and whole foods, with water being the foundation of your fluid intake. Potential issues could arise if your entire diet and beverage choices were built around foods and litres of beverages containing these sweeteners.

If you are also interested in other types of sweeteners, read our article: Sugar Substitutes – Which Sweetener Is Right for You?

sweeteners and health

The effect of low-calorie drinks on health

In addition to the aforementioned sweeteners, diet drinks also contain other ingredients, such as organic acids and preservatives. Nowadays, scientists are studying the impact of these drinks on health, and preliminary results show that they may have potential adverse effects on certain areas of health.

1. Dental health

The importance of teeth and their health is often overlooked, even though they come into contact with everything we eat or drink. Many foods and beverages can have a negative impact on teeth, and diet drinks are no exception. They frequently contain various organic acids that give them their sour taste. However, these acids can also contribute to tooth erosion. Tooth erosion occurs when tooth enamel gets damaged, which happens when the oral environment remains acidic for too long (low pH).

The greatest risk lies in the repeated consumption of these drinks throughout the day, because the body does not have enough time to restore the pH level in the mouth to its optimal range. Therefore, it is advisable to consume these drinks not only in small quantities, but also to be mindful and ideally consume them in one sitting. [13]

diet drinks and dental health

2. Bone health

Excessive consumption of these drinks likely has a negative impact on bone health as well. This is particularly true for cola drinks containing phosphoric acid, which may contribute to demineralization of the bones. Demineralization occurs when calcium stored in the bones gets released in excessive amounts, resulting in reduced bone density and strength. Additionally, cola drinks often contain caffeine, which can reduce the absorption of calcium into the bloodstream. Therefore, excessive intake of these drinks could potentially increase the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones), hence it is advisable to consume them only occasionally. [5]

3. Cardiovascular health

Studies have also linked diet drinks with cardiovascular health. It is unlikely that these drinks directly damage the heart and blood vessels, but they may affect them through various other mechanisms. For example, the aforementioned sweeteners likely have an impact on glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and the composition of the gut microbiota, which subsequently impacts the health of the heart and blood vessels. [6]

That said, the consumption of diet drinks alone cannot be considered the main factor influencing the cardiovascular health. Overall dietary habits, physical activity, and genetic predispositions play a more significant role in this matter.

4. Digestive tract

Consumption of diet drink can also affect digestion, the main factor in this being the process of carbonation. It’s quite hard to find a sweetened low-calorie drink without bubbles. However, the bubbles formed by carbonation can cause discomfort for those with more sensitive digestion. This can lead to bloating and worsen the symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux (known as heartburn). If this happens to be the case for you, and you’re accustomed to regularly consuming these drinks, it might be worth trying to limit them for a period of time. [2]

diet drinks and sweeteners

5. Gut Microbiota

In recent times, there has been a growing focus on sweeteners and their potential effects on the composition of the gut microbiota. This is because the gut microbiota’s optimal composition plays a vital role in one’s overall health. Not only does it influence the health of the digestive system, but it also affects important aspects such as immune function and mental well-being. [1]

Studies have observed that sweeteners found in low-calorie drinks, particularly saccharin and sucralose, may potentially contribute to a decrease in the abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This creates an opportunity for the proliferation of harmful bacteria, which can result in not only worsened digestion, but also cause other health complications. [8,11]

6. Effect on blood sugar levels

As sweeteners are not sugar, they cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream and raise blood sugar levels in the same way. However, it seems that despite this, they still have some impact on blood sugar levels after all. This is likely due to the hormone insulin, which the body releases not only in response to sugar being absorbed into the blood stream, but also in response to the taste or smell of food. Thus, it appears that simply the sweet taste of drinks containing sweeteners may potentially stimulate insulin production. Insulin, in turn, can lower blood sugar levels by facilitating the transport of glucose from the blood stream into cells.

Therefore, some studies suggest a link between sweeteners and increased appetite and sweet cravings. When blood sugar levels drop, but there is no sugar available from food to restore them to normal levels, the body may start craving sugar in the form of a sweet tooth. Sweeteners may also have an impact on the secretion of other hormones, such as GLP-1, which signal feelings of hunger. However, these effects are not fully understood, and it cannot be conclusively stated that sweeteners increase appetite or sweet cravings. [5]

Interestingly, some sweeteners may have a potential effect of increasing blood sugar levels. This could be attributed to their influence on the composition of the gut microbiota, which subsequently affects blood sugar levels. However, this effect is highly complex, and it is not yet fully understood which factors are involved. Therefore, further research is needed to provide more precise answers. Nonetheless, individuals with diabetes or those who need to monitor their blood sugar levels should consume these drinks in moderation. [11,12]

Are diet drinks suitable for weight loss?

Low-calorie drinks are perceived as a great ally when one can’t give up on sweet drinks, but needs to limit their sugar and calorie intake at the same time. They allow you to achieve this goal without sacrificing the enjoyable sweet taste. These drinks are therefore helpful for weight loss, as they can help reduce overall energy intake and create a calorie deficit, which is necessary for successful weight reduction. Sugary drinks contain a significant amount of energy, and by removing them from your diet, you can greatly decrease your overall calorie intake.

Calorie and sugar content in sugar-sweetened beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages
Sugar-sweetened beverages
Sugar content / 500 ml
Coca-Cola225 kcal56 g (approx. 11 sugar cubes)
Fanta140 kcal34.5 g (approx. 7 sugar cubes)
Sweetened mineral water100 kcal25 g (approx. 5 sugar cubes)
Iced tea100 kcal22.5 g (approx. 4-5 sugar cubes)

Calorie and sugar content in sugar-free beverages

Sugar-free beverages
Caloric value / 500 ml
Sugar content / 500 ml
Coca-Cola1 kcal0 g
Fanta5 kcal0 g
Sweetened mineral water5 kcal0 g
Iced tea5 kcal0 g

By switching from a daily consumption of a litre of regular Coca-Cola to its Zero or Light variants, you can significantly reduce your daily energy intake by up to 450 kcal. Over the course of a month, you could save around 13,500 kcal, which is equivalent to the energy stored in approximately 1.85 kg of body fat (considering that 1 kg of fat contains 7,700 kcal). Therefore, just by eliminating one litre of sugary beverages from your diet, you have the potential to shed nearly 2 kg of body fat.

While some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may potentially stimulate appetite, it remains true that many people use them as a way to satisfy their sweet cravings. In those moments, they help deceive your taste buds and provide you with the desired sweet taste without increasing your calorie intake. These beverages can therefore assist in making dieting easier and provide a sweet touch when one needs to avoid sugar and high-calorie foods. [14]

That said, the results of some studies do point to a potential negative impact of artificial sweeteners. In one meta-analysis, their consumption was even associated with a higher risk of obesity. One possible explanation for this could be the suggested effect of artificial sweeteners on insulin secretion and hunger hormones. In the long run, it appears that artificial sweeteners may lead to increased calorie intake and subsequent weight gain in some individuals. [9,10]

This means that diet drinks can really help with weight loss, but when consumed in excess, they may have negative effects on your health. Therefore, it is important for them to be part of a well-planned, diverse, and balanced diet.

Are low-calorie drinks a suitable addition to a healthy diet?

It will probably not come as a surprise to you that the foundation of everyone’s fluid intake should be clean water. You can also complement it with mineral water or unsweetened teas. Additionally, you can spice up your fluid intake with a cup of coffee. On the other hand, you should avoid sugary drinks as much as possible. Low-calorie drinks could be placed somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy. They don’t contain sugar and therefore don’t have as many negative effects as regular sweetened beverages, but it seems that they still have some undesirable effects when consumed excessively. Ideally, they should serve as an occasional addition to your diet when you crave a sweet drink.

As always, it’s important to remember that individual preferences and reactions may vary, and these drinks may not be suitable for everyone. For example, some individuals may have a more sensitive digestive system and experience issues with bloating or gas when consuming these beverages. Similarly, you might find that diet drinks don’t help satisfy your sweet cravings, but instead increase them. In such cases, it’s worth considering whether their consumption is worthwhile for you. However, if you don’t experience any of these problems, there’s no reason to completely avoid these drinks. When other fluids form the foundation of your fluid intake, and you consume these beverages in moderation (e.g., 2–3 glasses of Coca-Cola per week), it’s really not a concern.

You can also use them as a crutch for gradually reducing sugar in your diet and transitioning to a healthier fluid intake. If you are accustomed to sweetened beverages, you don’t have to switch to plain water immediately. Apart from adding lemon or herbs to your water to add flavour, you can gradually replace sugar-sweetened beverages with these light alternatives.

diet drinks in a healthy diet

What are the main takeaways?

Low-calorie drinks are simply a part of a diet that people perceive as a sweet treat. They satisfy your sweet cravings without providing you with any sugar or calories. Research shows that these drinks can be a good ally in dieting and can help satisfy your sweet cravings. However, excessive consumption can have adverse effects, such as impacting digestion or even increasing the desire for sweet foods. It’s important to remember that the effects can vary from one individual to another, but occasional consumption of these drinks is generally considered fine.


[1] BULL, M.J. - PLUMMER, N.T. Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. –

[2] CORMIER, R.E. Abdominal Gas. In WALKER, H.K. et al. –

[3] EFSA PANEL ON FOOD ADDITIVES AND NUTRIENT SOURCES ADDED TO FOOD (ANS) Safety of the proposed extension of use of acesulfame K (E 950) in foods for special medical purposes in young children. –

[4] FITCH, C. - KEIM, K.S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. –

[5] FUNG, T.T. et al. Soda consumption and risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women in the Nurses’ Health Study. –

[6] KRITTANAWONG, C. et al. Sugar-Sweetened and Artificially Sweetened Beverages Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Health. –

[7] MORTENSEN, A. Sweeteners permitted in the European Union: safety aspects. –

[8] PANG, M.D. et al. The Impact of Artificial Sweeteners on Body Weight Control and Glucose Homeostasis. –

[9] PETERS, J.C. et al. The effects of water and non‐nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss and weight maintenance: A randomized clinical trial. –

[10] QIN, P. et al. Sugar and artificially sweetened beverages and risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and all-cause mortality: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. –

[11] RUIZ-OJEDA, F.J. et al. Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. –

[12] SUEZ, J. et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. –

[13] TAHMASSEBI, J.F. et al. Soft drinks and dental health: A review of the current literature. –

[14] WILK, K. et al. The Effect of Artificial Sweeteners Use on Sweet Taste Perception and Weight Loss Efficacy: A Review. –

[15] Aspartame | EFSA. –

[16] Revised opinion on cyclamic acid and its sodium and calcium salts. –

[17] Scientific Opinion on the safety of steviol glycosides for the proposed uses as a food additive | EFSA. –

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