The not-so-sweet truth about sweeteners
A Cook Children’s endocrinologist looks at artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners (AS) have been around for over a hundred years since the discovery of saccharin. The past few decades have seen a boom in the number of AS discovered and approved for use by the FDA. The use of AS remain a source of controversy. There are numerous urban legends about their ill-effects causing cancer or multiple sclerosis to name but a few.
In the field of endocrinology, however, there has been ongoing serious scientific study regarding risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome linked to artificial sweetener use. Unfortunately, a definite answer hasn’t been reached to this question. One of the primary barriers making scientific investigations difficult is the fact that many of those using AS are already obese and at high risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
A number of theories have been offered by those who believe the link between AS and diabetes/metabolic syndrome is real. Perhaps, those using AS over-estimate the calorie savings from AS and over-eat. Perhaps, the craving for sweetness is increased with AS use leading again to extra sugar-rich calories in the diet. Perhaps, there is premature loss of satiety (that sense of fullness with a meal) when AS is used leading to earlier return of hunger. There are many other theories as well with individuals lining up in support or against the theories.
A newly published article from last month adds more information on the possible link of AS to diabetes/metabolic syndrome. The scientific study investigates the effects of AS in both mice and humans from a unique perspective and made national headlines.
The most provocative part of the article deals with an 11 week investigation in mice. The mice were given artificial sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose) along with a regular diet. They were tested at the start and at the end of the experiment. The mice given AS had an abnormal, pre-diabetic response to a large meal of glucose (sugar) compared to mice given water or sugar-water. A smaller number of mice in the study were tested with a combination of saccharin and a high fat diet and showed a pattern of pre-diabetes in blood testing within 5 weeks. The research reported in humans in this study was less compelling and showed pre-diabetes changes in some but not all of the human research participants.
What was the reason offered by the researchers explaining pre-diabetes changes seen in AS use in their research? Gut microflora and the changes they believe occur in the digestive system from absorbing artificial sweeteners. I know you want to know more about gut microflora, right?
Gut microflora refers to the many kinds of bacteria living the digestive system. Our knowledge about the kinds and roles of these helpful bacteria continues to increase. Scientists have known for a while that these bacteria help make some essential vitamins such as vitamin K and help keep bad bacteria from multiplying too fast.
The research reported drastic changes in the types of gut microflora in all the mice fed artificial sweeteners and in some of the human subjects. The unique theory offered by their research is that changes in the gut microflora caused by AS exposure were responsible for the pre-diabetes seen in the research. In other words, the artificial sweeteners changed the numbers (increasing some and decreasing others) of the many different microflora in the bodies of the mice.
As a pediatric endocrinologist, I welcome the ongoing investigation of the safety of AS use. For many of the children and their parents whom I care for there is a problem. Excess dietary sugar represents a significant fuel to the obesity epidemic and must be managed. Dietary use of AS is almost essential in those with type 1 diabetes to help in maintaining stable blood sugars. For those with type 2 diabetes, AS may help in managing daily calorie intake and reversing obesity.
It is probably overly optimistic to believe that AS are completely without impact on the body. The real ongoing scientific challenge is gaining the proper perspective on their health impact. Proper perspective is very important. For instance, the AS exposure in the mice studied was maximal, which would be comparable to drinking 19 diet drinks per day which is very unnatural.
The big, unanswered question brought up by this research is what could be the long-term effects in those who eat or drink much lower levels of AS. I personally decided within the past year to reduce my AS intake as part of an overall decision to eat healthier. This study doesn’t persuade me yet to eliminate AS completely (I love Diet Coke® too much). My best advice after reading this article is moderation and continued focus on a healthy diet.
As a self-described ‘techie,’ Joel Steelman, M.D., has a keen interest in the wise use of technology to improve medical care. Since 2001, he has helped implement electronic medical recordkeeping in two endocrine practices.