Diet soda shouldn’t escape taxation

Lots of states are jumping on the soda tax bandwagon — 30 states and counting tax soda (or pop, if you’re from my neck of the woods), but arguing about whether soda and sugary drinks should be taxed is not my goal. What’s really bizarre is some states’ current or desired exemption for diet soda.

On the surface, diet soda seems like a better choice than regular soda. No calories, no sugar, but the same carbonation and a similar taste. But by exempting soda, lawmakers are saying that diet soda is a healthy alternative to regular soda, which is not true. Despite the “diet” in the title and the nutrition facts on the can or bottle, diet soda is as unhealthy as any sugary drink.

The reason diet soda doesn’t have calories or sugar is because of artificial sweeteners, which are sugar substitutes that are sweet but have fewer to no calories. Splenda, Equal, Truvia — they are all artificial sweeteners. Despite the arguments about whether they cause cancer, the arguments about their other ill health effects have been proven.

For instance, a 2008 study from the American Diabetes Association showed that “consumption of diet soda at least daily was associated with significantly greater risks of select incident metabolic syndrome components and type 2 diabetes.” Metabolic syndrome, as defined by the American Heart Association, is “characterized by a group of metabolic risk factors” such as obesity, high blood pressure, or blood fat disorders. Metabolic syndrome carries an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

How can diet sodas — which are without sugar and calories — lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease? A study at Purdue, in which rats given food with a sugar substitute tended to eat more than those who ate food with regular sugar, offers some clues:

Ingestive and digestive reflexes gear up for that intake but when false sweetness isn’t followed by lots of calories, the system gets confused. Thus, people may eat more or expend less energy than they otherwise would.

This also coincides with a psychological problem when it comes to low-calorie food, which is that we eat more of these foods than we otherwise would because they are low in calories or fat, which essentially negates the idea of a low-calorie or low-fat food. The same weight gain problem has been associated with high fructose corn syrup.

The human body metabolizes these sugar substitutes differently than regular sugar, which can lead to weight gain and the side effects that come along with it. So although these diet sodas are healthier on paper, they aren’t healthier in practice.

Plus, drinking diet soda is drinking empty calories anyway — like regular soda, there is no nutritional benefit to diet soda. Therefore, it seems ridiculous to tax regular soda as unhealthy while leaving diet soda tax-free as a “healthy” alternative. Healthy alternatives are water, tea, or milk because they all contribute positively to your health.

If a state wants to tax soda, it shouldn’t give diet soda a free pass because it encourages residents to switch to diet soda as a healthy alternative to regular soda — instead, it should tax diet soda as well because it is equally as unhealthy. Doing this will encourage residents to choose actual healthy alternatives, which would have a real impact on the health of Americans.

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