Are Artificial Sweeteners Making The Problems They Were Meant To Solve Even Worse?

Artificial sweeteners were heralded as the perfect solution for people suffering from diabetes. These chemical-based solutions were touted as the safe and effective substitute for sugar. However, these artificial sweeteners might not be the savior that people have so easily assumed them to be. In fact, these sweeteners might worsen the problem that they were initially meant to address.

Artificial sweeteners might be triggering higher blood-sugar levels in some people and contributing to the problems they were designed to combat, such as diabetes and obesity, according to new findings published in the journal Nature.

Although the precise reasons behind the blood-sugar changes remain uncertain, researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners could be disrupting the micro-biome. The scientists are referring to the billions of active micro-organisms that thrive in our gut. Our digestive track is home to a vast and enigmatic ecosystem of bacteria. Majority of these single-celled and multi-celled organisms are quite vital to our survival and help to process the food and waste products.

How did the scientist make the connection? Researchers conducted a series of experiments on mice. They found that several of the most widely used types of non-calorie sweeteners in food and drinks — saccharin, sucra­lose and aspartame — caused mice to experience increased risk of glucose intolerance. Developing intolerance to glucose is almost always the precursor to diabetes, shared Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, “We are talking about very dramatic increases.”

Thankfully, the scientists did not stop at mice and attempted to replicate the experiment on healthy humans who did not typically use artificial sweeteners. Seven human volunteers, who did not typically use artificial sweeteners, were given regular doses of saccharin over the course of a week. Four of them developed significant glucose intolerance.

If that’s not proof enough, in a separate mass experiment, researchers analyzed nearly 400 people and found that the gut bacteria of those who used artificial sweeteners were noticeably different from people who did not. Speaking about the findings, Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest said,

“We have more confidence now that there really is something going on [at least in animals]. ‘What does that mean over the long term for the population?’ We still don’t have that answer.”

So, are artificial sweeteners bad for you? The findings add an intriguing new dimension to the long-running debate over the potential health benefits and risks of artificial sweeteners, which are among the most common food additives and are readily and liberally consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

The gut’s bacteria are quite complex and are billions in population. Their presence and health are certainly altered by artificial sweeteners. So far, the Food and Drug Administration has approved six different types of sugar substitutes or “high-intensity” sweeteners, with the most recent coming this year. But are they really healthy?

[Image Credit | Gerilyn Burnett]