Soft Drinks 101: Benefits, Risks and (Slightly) Healthier Alternatives

Soft drinks provide a slight caffeine boost that can be healthy in moderation, but overall, they do more harm for your body than good.
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Sure, soda is delicious, but you probably don't think of it as being good for your health. It's well-known that soft drinks are full of empty calories and a high sugar content. But are there any positive effects of soda on the human body?

Are There Any Health Benefits of Soft Drinks?

Soft drinks get a bad reputation for their high sugar content — and sugar-free diet versions are similarly controversial, according to Harvard Health Publishing. But not everything in these drinks is bad news, and there are even a few health benefits of soft drinks (but they are few and far between).

First, the caffeine in some soft drinks can perk you up in small doses. According to the USDA, a 12-ounce can of regular Coca-Cola contains 33.3 milligrams of caffeine, about three times less than a cup of coffee.

Low levels of caffeine have been shown to improve brain function, help with focus and make workouts stronger and more effective, per the American Heart Association.

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The Health Risks of Drinking Soda

Don't be fooled into thinking soda is the ideal afternoon pick-me-up. It may perk you up for an hour or so, but due to its high sugar content, you'll likely experience an energy crash not long after.

Many popular soft drinks contain high-fructose corn syrup, which spikes blood sugar levels and converts quickly into fat, per an October 2012 study in Nutrition & Metabolism. They give you a quick boost, but in the long run, they make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight — not to mention that sugar can be addicting.

Diet drinks may have zero calories and no sugar, but they aren't always better for your overall health and are by no means the healthiest soda. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame may have negative effects on the taste receptors and cravings, and little is known about their long-term effects on the body, per Harvard Health Publishing. If you love soft drinks, diet sodas could be an effective way to lower your sugar intake — in moderation.

Should You Drink Soda?

It’s up to you whether you want to incorporate soft drinks into your regular rotation, but you should be aware of the health benefits as well as the health risks of drinking Pepsi, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks.

Soda can be OK as a treat every once in a while. Like any other processed food, soft drinks should be enjoyed in moderation as they do more harm than good.

Healthy Soft Drinks

Although "healthy" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of soft drinks, beverage companies are increasingly offering products aimed at the health-conscious consumer — and one of these is healthier sodas.

While these "healthy soft drinks" are still sweet and fizzy like traditional soda, they may offer certain healthful advantages, such as reduced- or zero-calorie, natural ingredients, and/or added vitamins.

If you have a condition that requires you to limit sugar, such as diabetes, low-sugar soft drinks can be a good alternative to sugary drinks because they have a minimal effect on your blood sugar levels. Low-sugar soft drinks are usually very low in calories, so they may also be included as part of a weight-loss regimen.

Tip

Before you assume a soft drink is healthy, check the nutrition label. Some sodas marketed as healthy drinks may have the same sugar content or artificial ingredients found in regular soda.

1. Diet Soda

Diet soda is probably the "healthy soft drink" that you're most familiar with. Diet sodas may be healthier than regular sodas in that they are sugar-free and virtually calorie-free. Diet sodas contain sugar-free sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium or sucralose.

Because they don't contain sugar or calories, diet sodas may help with weight control and diabetes control. And unlike the high-fructose corn syrup used in most regular sodas, artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas don't contribute to dental decay, per the Mayo Clinic.

However, artificial sweeteners in low-sugar soft drinks activate the reward centers in the brain that react to sugar, but they don't provide any substantial energy in the form of calories. As a result, your brain's ability to regulate energy may become compromised. A March 2014 study in the ​American Journal of Public Health​ showed that people who drink low-sugar or no-sugar soft drinks take in more solid food calories than people who drink sugary drinks.

2. Natural Sodas

So-called "natural" soft drinks are another type of soda marketed as healthy. Soft drinks labeled as "natural" might be sweetened with cane sugar or fruit juice rather than with chemically processed sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame.

Other soft drinks with "natural" on the label may still contain high-fructose corn syrup, but also contain some natural ingredients. Although many people equate "natural" with "healthy," there is, as of yet, insufficient evidence to prove that naturally occurring sugars are any healthier than high-fructose corn syrup or that the artificial chemicals in soft drinks are harmful to health, per the Mayo Clinic.

And any type of added sugar, when consumed in excess, can lead to weight gain, diabetes, dental cavities and other health problems, per the Mayo Clinic.

3. Vitamin-Fortified Sodas

Some diet and nondiet sodas contain added vitamins, minerals or antioxidants. For example, one major soda company debuted a soft drink in 2007 fortified with vitamins B3, B6 and E, and the mineral chromium.

Also in 2007, another soda-pop giant unveiled a variation of its most popular diet soda brand, fortified with vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, magnesium and zinc. Yet another major soda company offers an "antioxidant" version of a popular brand, in both diet and non-diet versions, which is fortified with 10 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin E.

While these vitamin-fortified soft drinks might be better for you than regular soda, it is healthier to get your nutrients from foods.

The Bottom Line

While some "healthy" soft drinks may offer certain nutritional advantages over regular soda, water remains the healthiest beverage choice. Low-fat milk, 100-percent fruit juice, tea and coffee are also healthier alternatives to soda when enjoyed in moderation.

If you do drink soda, it is healthiest to do so only in moderation — even if the soda is sugar-free or sweetened with natural sugar. While diet sodas have the advantage over regular soda of being sugar-free, the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are not known.

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