Artificial sweeteners allow consumers to enjoy sweetness in foods and drinks without the calories. They apparently help people lose weight and, in diabetic patients, control blood sugar levels.
At least that’s what we have been told for years.
However, a recent study published in Nature has found that artificial sweeteners do the exact opposite. According to the study, artificial sweeteners may actually contribute to metabolic problems associated with the onset of diabetes and obesity.
The culprit may be the bacteria and microbes living in the gut, the collection of which is known as the microbiome.
Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel conducted a study investigating the effects of saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame (known by most as Equal, Splenda, and Sweet'N Low, respectively) in lab mice.
They spiked the drinking water of 10-week-old mice with the artificial sweeteners, and then compared those mice with ones that drank plain water or real sugar water.
After a week, the mice that drank artificially sweetened water developed glucose intolerance. The regular and sugar water mice showed no significant changes.
Glucose intolerance occurs when the body does not respond correctly to having sugar in the blood, resulting in higher blood sugar levels. This can lead to all sorts of metabolic problems, notably type 2 diabetes.
The researchers decided to wipe out the gut bacteria of the mice using antibiotics. They found that the artificial sweetener-drinking mice no longer had glucose intolerance after this treatment.
Additionally, if the feces of an artificial sweetener-drinking mouse were transplanted in a regular mouse, the regular mouse developed glucose intolerance. Evidence pointed to the microbiome as the potential cause for glucose intolerance in the mice.
Of the sweeteners used, saccharin had the strongest impact on glucose intolerance, followed by sucralose and then aspartame. In a part of the study focused on saccharin, the researchers discovered that the types of gut bacteria of saccharin-drinking mice significantly changed.
To see whether these results applied to humans, the researchers surveyed 381 people about their artificial sweetener consumption. They found that those who consumed a lot of artificial sweeteners also weighed more, had higher waist-to-hip ratios, and higher blood glucose levels. These are all risks for developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Finally, the researchers decided to test the consumption of saccharin in seven healthy human participants who otherwise did not use artificial sweeteners. These participants consumed the highest FDA-recommended daily serving of saccharin every day for a week.
Just like the mice, four out of the seven humans started showing weakened responses to sugar in the blood. And to drive the point home even more, transplanting feces of the affected humans into healthy mice caused the mice to develop glucose intolerance.
Dr. Eran Elinav, one of the scientists in the study, expressed surprise and his own desire to change his artificial sweetener habits.
“I’ve consumed very large amounts of coffee, and extensively used sweeteners, thinking like many other people that they are at least not harmful to me and perhaps even beneficial,” he said in a press conference.
“Given the surprising results that we got in our study, I made a personal preference to stop using them.”
Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. Retrieved October 18, 2014.
Artificial sweeteners may contribute to diabetes, controversial study finds. ScienceMag.com. Retrieved October 18, 2014.
Artificial Sweeteners May Disrupt Body’s Blood Sugar Controls. NYTimes.com. Retrieved October 18, 2014.
Artificial sweeteners may lead to diabetes. USAToday.com. Retrieved October 18, 2014.
Sugar substitutes linked to obesity. Nature. Retrieved October 18, 2014.
Sweeteners – sugar substitutes. MedlinePlus. Retrieved October 20, 2014.
Reviewed October 27, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith