Monday, 17 January, 2022
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‘Health’ drinks for diabetes care in India have more chemical than essential nutrients

Many Indians buy ‘sugar free’ health drinks in the hope that they will be able to regulate their blood glucose and gain essential nutrients and energy. But does it happen?

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Globally, one in 10 adults are affected by diabetes. New statistics released by the International Diabetes Federation ahead of World Diabetes Day on 14 November show that 537 million adults now have diabetes – an increase of 16 per cent, or 71 million, since the 2019 estimates. India houses more than 77 million adults living with diabetes. This number is projected to reach around 134 million by 2045.

India’s large diabetes population presents a lucrative opportunity to many companies engaged in developing and marketing an array of nutrition supplements including ‘sugar free’ health drinks that promise to provide optimum protein, fiber, and micronutrients. These drinks are also prescribed by medical practitioners to promote health, lose weight, manage blood sugar levels, and so on. But are these drinks nutrient-dense as they claim? Are they bringing any additional nutritional benefits to people living with diabetes?


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Less nutrition, more artificial sweeteners

A closer look at the ingredient lists of synthetic diabetes drinks is a must when you consider buying such products. Most of these are marketed as ‘sugar free’ claiming no presence of table or white refined sugar. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain any other form of sugar such as fructose, soy polysaccharide, etc. Most Indians don’t know the nutritional composition or impact of fructose on human health.

These drinks are loaded with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, etc. The benefits of artificial sweeteners are constantly debated due to conflicting results obtained from scientific research. Artificial sweeteners make you eat more, delay satiety. One small study with 14 female participants found that substituting sugar-sweetened drinks for diet drinks increased calories consumption. In another study, 20 participants consuming aspartame chewing gum reported increased hunger.

Artificial sweeteners are sweeter than natural sugars with zero-calorie content. The purpose of artificial sweeteners is to satisfy the sweet tooth without causing diseases or raising the blood glucose levels. However, research has found that artificial sweeteners trick the brain into perceiving they are harmless to consume in large quantities, which in turn leads to eating more, gaining more weight, and taking more time to digest. Mindless consumption of artificial sweeteners may bring negative health outcomes. Long-term consumption of these sweeteners is found to double the risk of obesity. What’s more, researchers found an association between drinking diet soda and a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in 66,000 participants.

Research has also noted the damaging effect of artificial sweeteners on the gut. Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are non-caloric artificial sweeteners that may alter the gut microbiota and cause diabetes type 2. Scientists found that artificial sweeteners can transform the gut microbiome into harmful microbes and cause serious health problems such as blood poisoning. Inconclusive research on the potential benefits of artificial sweeteners calls into question why people with diabetes and high blood glucose levels are being advised to consume sweetener-laden ‘health’ drinks.


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Maltodextrin

The next ingredient on the list is maltodextrin, which makes these health drinks poor choices for diabetes management. Maltodextrin is a powdered form of starch obtained from corn, potato, wheat, etc. and used as a common additive in multiple foods to increase their shelf life, improve texture and flavor. The glycemic index of maltodextrin ranges from 106 to 136, much higher than table sugar and so it raises the blood glucose levels sharply. This spike in blood glucose is particularly harmful to people living with diabetes, prediabetes, at risk to develop diabetes or insulin resistance. Maltodextrin also affects gut health by suppressing the growth of good bacteria in the digestive system, altering the microbiota culture to make the host susceptible to multiple diseases.

Most of these drinks are derived from corn, soybean and sunflower seeds that are higher in omega 6 and enhance the risk of inflammation. Unattended inflammation is a potential risk factor to develop some common lifestyle disorders such as heart diseases, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.

Almost all health drinks for diabetes care contain artificial flavour and colours to enhance their appearance. Often these are found in strawberry, vanilla, chocolate flavour and presented in multiple colours. FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Yellow No. 6, and FD&C Blue No. 1 are some common artificial colours that manufacturers use to make the drinks more appealing and acceptable.


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Not pocket-friendly

Other than containing hazardous chemicals, these drinks are costly, ranging between Rs 300 to Rs 1,000 and higher. Because of the false or half-truth health claims, many people buy these drinks on a regular basis in the hope that they will be able to regulate their blood glucose and gain essential nutrients and energy throughout the day.

Having said that, as a nutritionist, I would like to ask – Should a sick person eat anything artificial at all? Diabetes is a serious metabolic disorder that can cause multiple health complications if not managed scientifically. There are countless versatile, nutrient-dense whole foods that can offer a balanced diet plate to people who are predisposed, diabetic or insulin resistant.

Additionally, eating meals instead of meal replacers is crucial to avoid monotony. I encourage people living with diabetes to adopt a holistic approach in managing their health condition that involves nutrition education, menu planning, reading nutrition labels, and carefully selecting nutritious foods as part of comprehensive diabetes education.

Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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