As long as artificial sweeteners exist, people are warned about their perceived health risks such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. But while these allegations are routinely debunked as nothing more than junk science, some research – including a new study presented this week at the annual Experimental Biology conference – is beginning to show that sweeteners actually contribute to health issues such as type 2 diabetes could contribute.
Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University used rats that were susceptible to diabetes for their experiments. For three weeks various groups were fed with high doses of two sugars, glucose and fructose, and two common artificial sweeteners, aspartame and acesulfame potassium. Then they studied the rat's blood using a large-scale technique that tracks tiny metabolic changes known as metabolomics.
"Shortly after three weeks of administering these sweeteners and sugars to our diabetic-susceptible rats, we saw biochemical changes in the liver blood that could potentially lead to changes in fat and energy metabolism," said lead author Brian Hoffman, a biomedical engineer at both institutions, opposite Gizmodo.
Diabetes is what happens when our body is unable to maintain the right level of glucose in the body. a process that is largely regulated by the hormone insulin. This breakdown means that people either no longer respond to insulin as easily as they once did or stop producing insulin completely. It is believed that excessive sugar in our diet helps to cause diabetes by overloading the insulin-producing machinery of the body as it is used to restore high blood sugar levels to normal.
Because of this, artificial sweeteners have long been promoted to people who eat and lose treats and soft drinks safely, without increasing the risk of diabetes. But rates of diabetes and obesity continued to skyrocket, even as high-sweetened foods and drinks became widely available from the 1950s onwards. (There are currently six FDA approved artificial sweeteners.)
Hoffmann and his team have not only tried to understand how sugar ignites the chain of events that lead to diabetes, but also tries to find out if sweeteners are able to do the same thing.
If sweeteners can increase our risk for diabetes, Hoffman says they probably do it differently than sugar. Instead of overpowering the body's machinery, research by him and others suggests that artificial sugar wears it off. "Sweeteners somehow cheat the body, and then, if your body does not get the energy it needs – because it needs some sugar to function properly – it may find that source elsewhere," Hoffman said.
In the rats' blood, his team found evidence of protein breakdown, probably because their bodies were determined to burn muscle as a source of energy. They also found higher concentrations of lipids and other fats that could eventually contribute to obesity and diabetes. Other research suggests that sweeteners alter the community of bacteria that call our gut home – the microbiome – in ways that can lead to harmful metabolic changes. And more research has shown that diets rich in artificial sweeteners are associated with a greater risk of diabetes and obesity.
Hoffman is aware of past efforts to tie sweeteners to serious health risks, but he says things are different in this case
"Most of these sweeteners were approved long before we had the technology to conduct trials As was the case in my laboratory, they were unable to study some of the potential effects in such detail, "he said. "By knowing what biochemical changes are caused by these large-scale studies, we can act impartially and see what changes to give us a better direction."
Hoffman's team plans to incorporate their recent peer group reviews into reviewed journals, but they are already investigating their sweetener-fed rats for extended periods of time. Future studies will probably also look at the microbiome of rats. Ultimately, he believes that their study method can be relatively easy to use because only one blood sample is needed to study small metabolic changes. In the meantime, however, he does not want to scare anyone away from their diet drinking habit.
"I want to tell people that most things get good in moderation, so if you enjoy your diet lemonade here and there, then you have your diet lemonade here and there." "If you take your soda here and there "Let them drink here and there," he said, "when people start to consume them chronically – say, one person drinks two, three, four every day [these drinks] we should be worried. Because you start introducing these biochemical changes, and the body does not have time to recover. "