Sweeteners potentially harmful: Study

By Jasminee Sahoye

A new study has experts split on whether artificial sweeteners are a helpful or harmful.
A new study has experts split on whether artificial sweeteners are a helpful or harmful.

A recent study on the use of artificial sweeteners has health advocates weighing in on whether diabetics or anyone at risk of developing the disease are more at risk if using artificial sweeteners.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, an expert on obesity issues, argues artificial sweeteners have been carefully examined in a number of studies, but none have definitively concluded they pose any health risks to consumers.

He also criticizes studies that link consumption of artificial sweeteners to weight gain as those studies typically fail to take into account the overall quality of an individual’s diet. Freedhoff, however, believes artificial sweeteners are a good alternative for people who want or need to lose weight.

But the recent study published in the journal Nature, co-led by Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, found that artificial sweeteners may drive or contribute to high blood levels. The team found the sweeteners led to “… an exaggerated elevation in blood glucose levels – the very same condition that we often aim to prevent by consuming them,” said Elinav.

Elinav’s team conducted a series of experiments in both mice and humans, repeating them several times to check their results. They used three common artificial sweeteners – saccharin, sucralose or aspartame.

They found that mice whose drinking water was supplemented with glucose and a sweetener developed marked glucose intolerance compared with mice drinking water alone, or water with just sugar in it.

Some 400 people were analyzed and the team found that the gut bacteria in those who consumed artificial sweeteners was significantly different from those who did not. They also found non-caloric artificial sweetener (NAS) eaters had “markers” for diabetes, including raised blood sugar levels and glucose intolerance.

The scientists then put seven volunteers who did not normally consume artificial sweeteners on a controlled seven-day diet of high NAS intake and found that after only four days their blood glucose levels were up and the composition of their gut bacteria had also changed, mirroring the results in mice.

“These results indicate that non-caloric artificial sweeteners may exacerbate, rather than prevent, metabolic disorders such as glucose intolerance and diabetes,” the team wrote in their study.

The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association have given a cautious nod to artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.

“While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat. Reducing calories could help you attain and maintain a healthy body weight, and thereby lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes,” said Dr. Christopher Gardner, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University in California.

However, an American obesity and weight loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. David Ludwig, is concerned about artificial sweeteners.

He is concerned that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits. “I’m drinking diet soda, so it’s okay to have cake.”