Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad For You?

The fear surrounding the growing obesity epidemic has sparked many people to turn to artificial sweeteners. Supposedly no calories are lurking in these sweet alternatives, and we are told that they are more diet friendly. It is also thought that blood sugar levels are reduced by opting for artificial sweeteners, and so along with maintaining a healthy weight, it is seen as a method to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic complications.

However, are artificial sweeteners really all that great? Are they the best way to lose weight? What happens to your body when you opt for these calorie-void sweeteners? Such questions are important, as there are concerns that artificial sweeteners may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when ingested over the long-term. The question is; are artificial sweeteners safe?

What does the science say?

Research shows that artificial sweeteners can mess with brain chemistry and hormones, especially those responsible for appetite and feeling full. Therefore, artificial sweeteners can actually cause carbohydrate and sugar cravings to increase [1]. It does so by confusing the body.

Let’s backtrack and clarify what happens when we eat sweet foods. Our brain releases dopamine, sparking the brain’s reward centre into action. When you have ingested enough calories, your fat cells begin to secrete a hormone called leptin, an appetite-regulating hormone. Voila … the brain gets a signal to say that you are full, so your hunger stops, and you no longer crave food. Pretty incredible, right? Let’s figure out what happens when we try to fool our systems by eating “fake” sugar.

Artificial sweetener is essentially calorie-free sugar, theoretically. Because of the familiar sweetness, our food reward pathways are activated. However, because the body is not receiving the calories along with the sweetness, the brain has no reason or means to switch the reward centre pathways off! Hence, confusion follows. The result is that the body keeps telling the brain that it requires energy, therefore sparks cravings for energy-dense foods such as carbs and sugars. It’s no secret as to what ensues ... excess calorie intake. Now it becomes a little clearer as to why artificial sweeteners and weight gain can go hand in hand.

The University of California-San Diego conducted a study that found that parts of the brain were activated by sugar associated with food reward pathways. However, they also found that sucralose did not associate with food reward pathways [2].

But wait, there’s more. We also now know that the gastrointestinal tract and pancreatic beta cells have the same receptors that our taste buds have … the ones that detect sweet taste [3]. When these receptors in the pancreatic cells are activated, insulin is secreted as a result. However, in the intestine, this mechanism influences the uptake of glucose from lumina (space inside intestinal tube). This leads to increased absorption of glucose, which is then stored as belly fat.

There is a significant collection of evidence suggesting that zero-calorie sweeteners can cause glucose intolerance, (as you will know more commonly as type 2 diabetes), weight gain [4] [5] [6] [7], and accelerated chances of heart disease [8] [9] [10]. This leaves us urging, “isn’t the point of artificial sweeteners to reduce the risk of such health issues?”.

While some studies in this area may be non-conclusive, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the effects of artificial sweeteners on the body should be further investigated.

We come to another piece of research that clarifies the connection between artificial sweeteners, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. This study is by no means the first or the most conclusive, it is still a helpful steppingstone toward a deeper understanding of the side effects of artificial sweeteners.

Study suggests that artificial sweeteners may alter the gut flora and cause glucose intolerance

The study at hand [11] suggested that artificial sweeteners usher in a change in the composition and function of gut bacteria. What we know for sure is that there are trillions of microbes living in our digestive tract (aka gut microbiome) and they are an important player in our metabolism. The metabolism is the process by which food is converted to energy to be used immediately or to be stored away as fat.

It seems that artificial sweeteners increase the numbers of firmicutes, a special kind of bacteria that are great at extracting energy from food and storing such energy as body fat. As you can conclude, this tells us that artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain and glucose intolerance by messing with the delicate balance of flora in the gut.

In saying that, the authors of the study warned that not everyone is susceptible to these effects of artificial sweeteners in the same fashion. They found that their discoveries call for more research to figure out what makes one person more vulnerable than another and to gain further clarification on the mechanisms and pathways involved in gut microbes and metabolic discrepancies. While other experts in this field have urged that this data is minimal and non-conclusive, it is still considered a worthy and helpful piece of research from which deeper research can emerge.

When employing common sense, we might conclude that yes, artificial sweeteners are foreign chemical molecules. We’ve already seen through research that the human body isn’t prepared to metabolize such molecules in the same fashion as natural sweeteners. What’s more, it is fair to say that artificial sweeteners might have a selective nature when it comes to the effects they cause. This is fair enough considering that the body’s gut microbes are a result of genetics and environment, a very individual set of history from person to person. In saying this, it would be unwise to ignore comprehensive work [12] clearly showing that the dangers of consuming artificial sweeteners are real and more prominent than diet culture leads us to believe. If there is one thing you take from this, it is to ponder whether the studies hailing the positive effects of artificial sweeteners are conclusive and trustworthy. If the negative-leaning studies are inconclusive...what about the positive-leaning studies?

Food for thought!

We encourage you to conduct your own research when it comes to the questions “what are artificial sweeteners?” and, more importantly, “what are the dangers of artificial sweeteners?”. To pique your interest even more, we’ll conclude with a fascinating story of the genesis of Splenda (sucralose). This popular artificial sweetener was actually discovered during the process of making insecticide.

When a British professor, Leslie Hough, requested that an Indian graduate ‘test’ an intermediate compound, the student misheard and took the instruction as to “taste” it. He found that this compound was extremely sweet, hence sparking the accidental discovery of Splenda. In scientific terms, Splenda is one sucrose molecule combined with three chlorine atoms, with a taste approximately six hundred times sweeter than natural sugar. We call this kind of substance a “organochlorine”.

The chemical makeup of Splenda is: 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-beta-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galatopyranoside. The relevance of this lies in the fact that DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs (insecticides and herbicides) are also organochlorines.

What’s more, another well-known artificial sweetener called Saccharine is derived from the not-so-appetizing coal tar.

Let us know your thoughts on artificial sweeteners now that you understand the origins and potential side effects.

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  3. Itaru Kojima and Yuko Nakagawa. The Role of the Sweet Taste Receptor in Enteroendocrine Cells and Pancreatic ß-Cells. Diabetes and Metabolic Journal 2011 Oct; 35(5): 451–457.
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  9. Vasanti S. Malik, SCD, Barry M. Popkin, PHD, George A. Bray, MD, Jean-Pierre Després, PHD, Walter C. Willett, MD, DRPH and Frank B. Hu, MD, PHD. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes. A meta-analysis. American Diabetes Association. Diebetes care.
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  11. Suez et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature International weekly journal of science.
  12. Jotham Suez, Tal Korem, Gili Zilberman-Schapira, Eran Segal, Eran Elinav. Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. 2015