More bad news on artificial sweeteners

To say I’m not a fan of artificial sweeteners is an understatement. I detest them for so many reasons:

  • fake
  • off putting flavors
  • train people to crave sweeteners
  • haven’t helped with obesity at all
  • Did I mention “Fake”

Here’s one thing not on my list: cancer risk.  That’s the one effect regulatory agency bureaucrats think about when approving additives like sweeteners — do they cause cancer?  Because in their minds, cancer is the only meaningful adverse effect.  Except maybe not.  Research increasingly turns up evidence for other unpleasant effects of these additives which, while they may not kill you outright, could make life miserable or set you up for other serious problems.

Consider Crohn’s Disease, a devastating inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract that causes pain, distress, malabsorption of nutrients, with severe impacts on health and quality of life.  Crohn’s is a chronic condition, and there’s general agreement that some people are more likely than others to develop it due to genetic predisposition.  Treatment isn’t always effective; symptoms come and go; Crohn’s sufferers may not have any idea what sets off episodes.  There is a link between use of artificial sweeteners and Crohn’s, so a research team looked at how that link might work.  They studied mice that were bred to develop Crohn’s Disease (CD), and fed them increasing doses of Splenda.  Healthy non-Crohn’s mice were also given the artificial sweetener, and gut bacteria from the different mouse groups were compared.  The CD mice experienced an overgrowth of E. coli and adverse changes in immune function of the gut lining.  Conclusion: Splenda promoted gut dysbiosis in CD mice, but not in healthy mice.  The researchers emphasize that this effect was not seen in the healthy mice.  In other words, genetic susceptibility to the adverse effect was key.  This could very well explain why people at risk for Crohn’s Disease would have more problems when using artificial sweeteners.  Do these sweeteners cause Crohn’s?  This study didn’t ask or answer that question.  Rather it suggests that artificial sweeteners might aggravate flare-ups and make symptoms worse.  People with no risk for Crohn’s might have none of these effects from artificial sweeteners.

Or they might have other adverse effects that impact far more people.  Another set of studies reported recently looked at the effect of the artificial sweetener sucralose on fat cell metabolism. Cells from obese and normal weight people were exposed to sucralose.  The cells from the obese subjects showed clear signs of metabolic changes linked to increased fat accumulation and inflammation.  The sucralose exposure was equal to consumption of 4 cans of diet soda a day, not unusual for many people.

Another study looked compared the effect of glucose and artificial sweeteners on vascular health.  The study was done on rats that were bred to be susceptible to developing diabetes.  Both high glucose and artificial sweeteners adversely impacted the function of cells lining blood vessels, although the effects were caused by different mechanisms.  The researchers also found alterations in fat metabolism linked to artificial sweeteners.  And to think these additives are promoted as helpful for fighting obesity.  You have to wonder why, as the ever-increasing obesity epidemic has paralleled increased consumption of artificial sweeteners over past decades.  Coincidence?

Take Away Message

If you think the only possible adverse effect of artificial sweeteners would be cancer, think again.  It’s increasingly apparent that these chemicals affect all kinds of metabolic systems, including our gut microbe populations.  You might think “oh this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t drink diet soda.”  Artificial sweeteners are everywhere:

  • Low calorie coffee creamers
  • the sweetener in your “skinny” latte or chai
  • Added to “energy” shots and bars that have no calories (and therefore no actual energy)
  • reduced calorie yogurt, flavored milks, ice cream, frozen desserts, juice drinks, seltzer water and sports drinks
  • the sweetener packets you add to your coffee or iced tea, or sprinkle on fruit
  • artificially sweetened candies, cookies, pies, cakes and whipped toppings

Should you be concerned?  If you’re overweight and have been struggling for a long time to lose weight, while using lots of artificial sweeteners, you may want to re-think that strategy.  If you use lots of artificially sweetened foods and have ongoing digestive problems that no one can figure out, you might want to re-think the artificial sweeteners.  If you use these types of foods and have no particular problems, or use them infrequently in small amounts, you probably don’t have to worry.  Unless you prefer foods and flavors that aren’t fake.

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