UAE doctors warn of health risks linked to sugar-free soda, sweeteners

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Doctors in the UAE are warning people to reduce their intake of sugar-free drinks, after a recent study revealed they could lead to increased risk of heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that higher consumption of artificial sweeteners commonly found in sugar-free sodas such as Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi could lead to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes.

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The products, commonly found on supermarket shelves throughout the UAE and other countries, represent a huge market valued globally at $72 billion globally, according to data in the study.

But doctors worry the product, usually taken by people trying to reduce their sugar intake, could be doing more harm than good.

Ashwin Pankajakshan, endocrinologist at NMC Royal Hospital Dubai, told Al Arabiya English that many snacks and foods are made with artificial sweeteners, but the “most common” are often found in fizzy drinks like diet pepsi and diet coke.

“When people have diet coke, they have this feeling it’s not harmful,” Pankajakshan said, adding that many people think it’s okay to drink three or four cans a day.

“But that’s not true,” he said, warning that people should only drink these sodas in moderation and reduce their intake of artificial sweeteners found in products including, yoghurt, ice cream and cereals.

One particularly harmful chemical found in artificial sweeteners is aspartame. Out of all artificial sweeteners consumed aspartame accounts for nearly 60 percent, followed by Acesulfame found in products such as toothpaste, desserts and jams.

“Most of the food in the market is labeled sugar-free, keto friendly or lite,” Hanan Ibrahim Khatib, clinical dietitian, and nutritionist at Alshareq hospital Fujairah told Al Arabiya English.

“It [artificial sweetener] does not have any calories, but it has a harmful effect on the body,” Khatib said.

She added that it can also lead to a bad gut – potentially bad bacteria and yeast in the digestive system - and diabetes, in the long-term.

When a person’s gut is imbalanced, their body could struggle to absorb nutrients, store fat and regulate blood sugar – the latter of which could cause diabetes.

But for anyone wanting to reduce calorie and sugar intake plant-based sweetener stevia could be a better option, Hana advised, saying that in the UAE, there is “a lot of food and drinks that are stevia based.”

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