Death knell for artificial sweeteners?

artificialsweetenersProbably not, but new study raises new doubts

I’m no fan of artificial sweeteners, but my objection is more philosophical than metabolic.  I think they teach a terrible lesson: that everything you eat or drink should be super-sweet, but without any caloric consequences.  Super saturated sweet tastes dull your taste buds to the subtle natural sweetness of whole foods.  Even fruit tastes bland if you’re used to diet soft drinks, sweetened yogurt, low calorie frozen desserts and artificially sweetened coffee and tea drinks.

That’s the philosophy.  What about effectiveness?  Why, with so many people consuming so many artificially sweetened/low calorie products, do we have an ever-expanding obesity epidemic?  Just this week, a new study showed that 43% of men and 64% of women have abdominal obesity, the kind most closely linked to a wide range of chronic diseases.  Even people not officially “obese” can have excess abdominal fat.  Apparently widespread use of artificial sweeteners isn’t helping.

Recently several studies have investigated possible metabolic reasons that artificial sweeteners might actually contribute to obesity.  The theory is that fake sweeteners trick the brain and digestion into thinking real calories are coming.  Digestion gears up to handle the calories, but they aren’t there.  All the hormones that were revved up have nothing to do.  Eventually this trickery leads to metabolic dysfunction and overeating real calories and obesity.  This theory makes intuitive sense.  Some research suggests there’s something to this argument, but as yet there’s no definitive proof.  And certainly manufacturers of artificial sweeteners and the products made with them aren’t going to sit around and watch their cash cow go down the tubes.   They’ll fund their own studies to refute adverse findings.

A new study, done in Israel, takes a surprising detour in the anti-artificial sweetener debate.  This study looked at the effect of these sweeteners on gut bacteria, not on metabolism.

It’s been known for some time that obese people have very different populations of gut bacteria when compared to normal weight people.  And losing weight causes those populations to become more similar to lean people.  So there’s some connection between obesity and gut microbes.  But is it a cause?  Or an effect of an obesity-causing diet/lifestyle?

The researchers did several different experiments to investigate the influence of artificial sweeteners (AS) on gut microbes.

  1. First they fed mice sweetened water, with AS or sugar.  The mice that got the AS drink developed glucose intolerance, a precursor of diabetes.  The scientists suspected an effect on gut bacteria might be causing this change.  So they gave the mice antibiotics.  Result: the glucose intolerance disappeared.
  2. In another experiment, gut bacteria from AS-eating mice were implanted in mice with sterile guts.  Result: the mice that received the bacterial implants developed glucose intolerance, even though they hadn’t actually consumed artificial sweeteners.
  3. They then looked at the effect on human subjects.  They first compared gut bacteria populations from people who admit to using artificially sweetened products to bacteria from people who do not consume those.  Gut microbes were different in the AS-consuming subjects.
  4. They then recruited people who did not typically eat any foods with artificial sweeteners, and fed them AS foods and beverages for a week.  At the end of just one week, gut bacteria populations were changing, and some of the subjects were developing signs of glucose intolerance.

The scientists who did these studies are reportedly recruiting subjects for a larger study to clarify the link between gut microbes, artificial sweeteners and obesity.  Meanwhile what should you do?  My personal opinion is this: artificial sweeteners contribute nothing to our health.  They were intended to help dieters reduce calorie intake.  Their  real effect might not be helpful at all.  If you consume lots of artificially sweetened foods and beverages every day, you may want to rethink that strategy and start eating more real food and drinking water when you’re thirsty.

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