Do sugar free drinks give you more cravings than sugar containing ones?
Sugar free drinks can be really useful to curb a sweet tooth. They also have the added bonus of being calorie free, which is especially handy if you’re in a calorie deficit.
But many people think that sugar free drinks actually give you more cravings than the original sugar containing version. People claim that this is the case because drinking sugar free drinks tricks your body into expecting sugar, and when it doesn’t, it craves it more.
Is there any truth to this?
This has actually been studied quite a bit. A 2020 study by Rogers et al. examined the effect of food preference after consuming a sugar-free drink sweetened with a non-nutritive sweetener versus water. They did this across three studies.
In study 1, they compared the effect of consuming a sugar-free blackcurrant squash, or water. Participants were then asked to rate their desire to consume a range of sweet foods and beverages. The desire to consume sweet foods and beverages was lower in the group who drank the sugar free drink than those who drank the water.
In study 2, they compared the effect of consuming a sugar-free orange squash, or water, but participants were then asked to rate their desire to consume a range of sweet and savoury foods and beverages. Similarly, to study 1, the desire to consume sweet foods and beverages was lower in the group who consumed the sugar free squash. However, the desire to consume savoury foods was not lower than the water group.
Researchers also found that the lowered desire for sweet foods appeared to only last for 2-hours before returning to the same level as those who drank water. This suggests that the effect is acute rather than long-lasting.
Finally, in the third study, sugar containing and sugar free carbonated beverages were compared to still and carbonated water. Participants were then given crisps and cookies which they could eat as much as they wanted of. Crisp consumption was similar in all groups, but those who had the sugar free and sugar containing beverages had a lower consumption of cookies.
This again shows that sugar free beverages do not lead to increased cravings, and actually lead to an acute decrease in cravings for sweet foods!
Why is this?
Above, we learnt that sugar free beverages actually tend to lead to a decrease in cravings for sweet foods compared to water.
It is thought this is due to sensory specific satiety (SSS). This is described as a momentary reduction in liking and desire to consume a food or a reduction in the pleasantness of the taste that occurs with eating. In practice, this occurs with sweet or savoury tastes and refers to the fact that your taste buds will tend to get a bit tired of a sweet or savoury flavour as you continue to eat it. The more sweet food you eat, the less appealing it will become, and the more savoury food you eat, the less appealing savoury food will become!
Have you ever been out for dinner and been really full, but when the dessert menu comes around you find some room? Some of us might refer to this as our dessert belly, this is actually sensory specific satiety in practice!
This also explains why crisp consumption was similar in both groups. Only cravings for sweet foods were reduced. This is because of sensory specific satiety.
As shown in the above studies, this effect is not long-lasting, and appears to be acute and seemed to last for around 2-hours.
So what does this mean in practice?
Whether or not you consume sugar-free drinks is a personal choice. Based off the current literature, at regular intakes, sugar free beverages do not seem to pose any health risks, and do not appear to increase cravings. They might actually be a handy mechanism of keeping some cravings at bay, especially after a meal if you’re craving something sweet.