Common artificial sweeteners found to hide a nasty little secret

23 Apr 2018

Image: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock

The use of artificial sweeteners in drinks has skyrocketed as people try to live healthier lives, but a new study shows a hidden link to a rise in diabetes.

As more people become conscious of their health and diet in recent years, there has been a significant increase in drinks that include artificial sweeteners promising zero calories.

However, new research has shown that the idea of these drinks being ‘guilt-free’ is not only a misnomer, but a potentially dangerous one when it comes to a person’s long-term health.

A team from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University in the US presented its findings at the American Physiological Society annual meeting yesterday (22 April) based on the largest examination to date of biochemical changes in the body as a result of taking artificial sweeteners.

Tested on rats and cell cultures, the experiments also looked at impacts on vascular health by studying how the substances affect the lining of blood vessels.

For the tests, the team fed different groups of rats diets high in natural sugars such as glucose or fructose, or common artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or acesulfame.

Fake sugar overload

After three weeks, the researchers saw significant differences in the concentrations of biochemicals, fats and amino acids in blood samples.

This suggested that artificial sweeteners change how the body processes fat and gets its energy while also finding that acesulfame potassium seemed to accumulate in the blood, with higher concentrations having a more harmful effect on the cells that line blood vessels.

“We observed that, in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down,” said Brian Hoffmann, who led the research.

“We also observed that replacing these sugars with non-caloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism.”

Which is healthier?

This poses the question as to whether it is ‘healthier’ to consume more artificial sugar or sweeteners, but the team pointed out that there is no clear answer and that further studies would need to be undertaken.

“It is not as simple as ‘stop using artificial sweeteners’ being the key to solving overall health outcomes related to diabetes and obesity,” Hoffmann added.

“If you chronically consume these foreign substances (as with sugar), the risk of negative health outcomes increases. As with other dietary components, I like to tell people moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet.”

Until now, previous research into artificial sweeteners has received a mixed reaction, with questions being raised over a potential bias due to study sponsorship. This latest study suggests that switching from regular sugary drinks to sugar-free ones may be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic