Artificial sweeteners news

Food fears come and go in cycles.  Decades ago we were terrified of fat and cholesterol.  They were supposed to cause heart disease.  Result: an onslaught of tasteless low fat and reduced fat foods, processed to mimic the real thing… sort of.  Then we were afraid of artificial colors and salicylates, which are related to aspirin and were supposed to cause hyperactivity.  They soy was supposed to cause cancer.  Carbohydrates were supposed to make you fat.  Trans fats are supposed to cause heart disease.  Salt is supposed to cause high blood pressure.  Sugar is now supposed to cause heart disease and make you fat.  Dairy allegedly causes everything.  And we’re currently afraid of gluten, high fructose corn syrup and GMO.  I always wonder what will come next, because something definitely will come next.  Will it be artificial sweeteners?

For the past several years, there’s been a steady drumbeat of negative news about artificial sweeteners.  The Big Question is this: why is the obesity epidemic getting worse if we’re cutting out sugar and consuming more and more artificially sweetened foods?  It doesn’t make sense.  A review of 30 studies involving over 400,000 people found that intake of artificial sweeteners was linked to obesity and all the illnesses associated with obesity: heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.  Aren’t those sweeteners supposed to reverse or prevent those problems?

Some people criticized the results, claiming that artificial sweeteners are just one strategy for people trying to control their diets.  But the study authors also found that study subjects tended to develop the health problems of obesity during the study periods, which averaged 10 years.  In other words, use of artificial sweeteners wasn’t helping with weight loss during that time, or diseases linked to obesity wouldn’t have emerged.

A more recent study examined the metabolic response to artificial sweeteners.  Researchers mixed up a variety of drinks that varied in calories and sweetness.  The calories came from tasteless maltodextrin; the sweetness from sucralose.  The assumption is that metabolism responds to calories ingested, so as drinks contained more maltodextrin (calories), the metabolic response would increase to handle the calories.  Sweet flavor from sucralose would have no effect on metabolic response.  In fact the researchers found very different results.  Metabolism and brain responded to sweet taste, independently of calorie content.  In other words, the physiological response (by digestive hormones and brain reward centers) to sweet beverages isn’t just about the calories in that beverage.

Keep in mind: while there are many chemical forms of artificial sweetener, they all have one ultimate goal — send a signal of sweetness to the brain by way of taste buds.  Think about all the millions of people guzzling diet drinks laced with a variety of these sweeteners.  This study suggests they may be constantly stimulating a metabolic response to phantom calories that never arrive in the gut.  Sweet taste tells the brain that calories are coming.  Hormones rev up for nothing.  What happens to hormone systems when a person consumes these types of beverages several times a day?  It could explain why artificial sweetener consumption has been linked to Type 2 diabetes in previous studies.  One study suggests that artificial sweeteners shift the population of gut microbes, so that microbes associated with obesity and diabetes predominate.

As the artificial sweetener supporters like to point out, none of this proves that these chemicals cause obesity.  They also like to point out that all artificial sweeteners are recognized as “safe” by the FDA.  In other words, they don’t cause cancer.  But there are obviously plenty of other health issues besides cancer.  It’s certainly strange that obesity has gotten worse since artificial sweeteners took over the food supply.  And by the way, obesity itself is linked to several common and serious cancers.  Is any of this enough to make artificial sweeteners the next food fear?

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