Artificial sweeteners again

More reason to be suspicious

Hardly a day passes that I don’t see some warm and fuzzy headlines about the safety and general wonderfulness of artificial sweeteners.  The ads show up on websites that report on nutrition and medical research.  They show up embedded in emails from nutrition, food and health organizations.  “Debunking the myths about Aspartame” or “state of the science on Stevia” are just two examples, linked to articles that spread good news about artificial sweeteners.  A common claim: They’re safe (meaning they won’t kill you).  Or they help you reduce sugar intake.  Who hasn’t heard that sugar is bad?  Artificial sweeteners sound really great.

Thanks to the anti-sugar/low calorie health halo, artificial sweetener use has been going up for decades.  There are new types of artificial sweeteners and they’re used in more foods and beverages, from yogurt to cereal to soft drinks and even sports drinks and energy products.  Go figure, sports and energy products with no energy  But hey, they’re “safe”.

I’m not a fan of this stuff.  I’ve written about my suspicions before.  A couple of new studies add to my suspicions.

Study #1

Healthy subjects were assigned to consume sucralose or a placebo daily for 2 weeks.  They were evaluated for glucose metabolism.  The people taking sucralose had a significant decrease in insulin sensitivity and increased insulin response to carbohydrates.  In other words, their insulin spiked more after eating actual real food, but their cells were less receptive to the effects of insulin.  This is the kind of metabolic state we see in pre-diabetes.

Study #2

Healthy subjects were assigned to consume a placebo, or a combination of sucralose and acesulfame K, equivalent to drinking about 6 cups (4 cans) of diet soft drinks a day.  After two weeks, the impact on gut microbes was assessed.  The artificial sweetener group exhibited a decrease in populations of beneficial bacteria and an increase in opportunistic bacteria.  Hormones that help control blood sugar were impacted, with an overall adverse effect on blood sugar control.

So Health Halo food additives touted for reducing sugar in fact may disrupt energy metabolism.  Millions of people with diabetes, characterized by impaired insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, consume artificial sweeteners in the hope that those sweeteners would help improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.  It does make you wonder.   So many people just can’t seem to lose weight and just can’t seem to get good control of their diabetes even though they’re following the popular advice to reduce sugar intake by switching to artificial sweeteners.  Not to mention: with all the artificial sweeteners in the food supply, why is the obesity epidemic getting worse?

Here’s another thing to consider: these were mere 2 weeks studies on healthy subjects.  What about people who already have compromised glucose and insulin metabolism?  What’s the impact on those people?  What’s the impact of long term use?  One-quarter of children are regular users of artificial sweeteners; well over half of adults.  After years and years of constant consumption, what happens to blood glucose regulation and gut microbe populations?

Researchers understand that small brief studies cannot be the final word on this topic.  Long term studies, especially on people who are obese and/or pre-diabetic would be interesting.  Even if such studies are done, it’s not likely the artificial sweetener industry will fold up and go away.  Rather, we’ll have more of those cheery positive articles on how safe artificial sweeteners are.  Which is technically true, if all you care about is cancer risk, but that’s not enough to persuade me to ever use them.

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