New research finds real worries about artificial sweeteners

By: Denise Devine, @FrooseNutrition

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported on a study of artificial sweetener use in mice and people with a counterintuitive finding: it turns out the artificial sweeteners in diet soda, yogurt, and other foods consumed by millions can raise the blood sugar level instead of reducing it, according to new experiments conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science and published in the journal Nature.

These provocative findings certainly are cause to wonder whether artificial sweeteners actually help or hinder people’s ability to lose weight and lower their risk of diabetes. The Weizmann Institute of Science research team proved that zero-calorie sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame can negatively alter the population of bacteria in the gut and trigger unwanted changes in the body, especially higher blood glucose levels — a major risk factor for diabetes.

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Results of other studies focusing on the use of artificial sweeteners to manage weight have been mixed. Some studies indicate that the sweeteners can help lead to weight loss, while others suggest they contribute to weight gain. However, the Wall Street Journal noted that the new Weizmann study is a significant advance in scientific understanding because it brings together two previously separate areas of research:

  • the role of sweeteners in raising blood sugar levels
  • the complex workings of the vast colonies of bacteria that inhabit the gut

Every individual can have differing bacterial colonies in their gut, meaning all people respond differently to what they consume. In fact, the research team at the Weizmann Institute of Science is now recruiting hundreds of volunteers for a much more ambitious study investigating the link between gut bacteria, their response to hundreds of common food products, and the physical changes they induce in connection with obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.

In response, the Calorie Control Council, a trade group that represents makers of artificial sweeteners and other food products, released a statement asserting the Nature study suffered from several limitations. The council said the results from the mouse experiments may not apply to humans and the human experiments had a small sample size, concluding that further research was needed.

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Although this research is in the early stages, it certainly makes me wonder whether the same results would occur with zero-calorie sweeteners that were natural instead of the artificial sweeteners cited in the study.  In other words, is a natural form of caloric sweetener (e.g., sucrose, maltose, brown rice syrup, honey) in some amount necessary to facilitate optimal gut microbes or would a natural form of a non-caloric sweetener (e.g., erythritol, stevia, or others derived from fruits) do the same?  Is it the natural substance that the body detects or the caloric value (energy) the gut is reacting to in a positive way?

Regardless, one thing is clear: these discoveries open up a whole new avenue of research that can be very helpful in unlocking some of the keys to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.

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