Artificial Sweeteners May Do More Than Sweeten

New research, published in the journal Diabetes Care, suggests no-calorie sweeteners, sugar substitutes may alter metabolism after all.

In a small study, Washington University School of Medicine researchers found that a popular artificial sweetener, sucralose (specifically Splenda®), modified how the body handled sugar.

Sucralose is an is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and was initially discovered in 1976 by researchers at the University of London.

The majority of ingested sucralose is not broken down by the body, so it is considered non-caloric, non-nutritive, and therefore thought to be otherwise inert in regards to metabolism and insulin response.

Using the sugar substitute, clinicians analyzed 17 obese, non-diabetic people who didn’t use artificial sweeteners regularly. This particular population was selected because those who are overweight or obese are often guided towards lessening calorie intake in their diets, using alternative sweeteners to accomplish this.

The team studied a group with an average body mass index (BMI) of 42; obesity is classified with a BMI of 30. Prior to a glucose test, participants were given water or sucralose to drink – then they were given glucose. The researchers wanted to learn whether the combination of sucralose and glucose would affect insulin and blood sugar levels.

The glucose challenge test measures a body’s response to sugar (glucose) and is usually performed in two steps. First by drink a sugary solution and an one hour later, blood sugar levels are measured. The results of a glucose challenge test can indicate whether or not a patient has diabetes.

In this case, each participant was tested twice. Those who drank water followed by glucose in one visit drank sucralose followed by glucose in the next. Thus, each subject served as his/her own control group.

It was determined that the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response. Blood sugar peaked higher in those who drank sucralose versus when they drank water before consuming glucose. Insulin levels rose about 20 percent.

An elevated insulin response isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it shows the body is capable of producing enough insulin to deal with the spiked glucose. However, people who routinely secrete more insulin can, over time, become resistant to its effects, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

According to the lead author, M. Yanina Pepino, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine, “We need to do more studies to determine whether this observation means long-term use could be harmful,” as well as further determining the mechanism of how sucralose influences glucose and insulin levels.

The research was funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) Clinical and Translational Sciences Award, and from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Tate & Lyle provided the sucralose.

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