Artificial Sweetener Smackdown

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | September 26, 2014

chandlers_saccharin_pelletsAlthough I’m a man of science—or at least a sciency man-child—my dislike of artificial sweeteners has always defied logic. Sure, the government considers them “Generally Recognized as Safe”, but as saccharin’s 70s/80s cancer scare flip-flop proved, we really don’t know what they do to us. Hell, I’m actually 6 years older than sucralose–how do I know if it’ll kill me or not? Give me teeth-rotting, gut-busting, diabetes-causing refined sugar any day. We know tons about what that stuff does to you. It’s the devil you know, as opposed to artificial sweeteners, the devils you don’t know.

Until now. Thanks to a new study featured in the journal Nature, we now know a lot more about this particular devil—and it turns out he’s a real son of a bitch. According to the study, three sweeteners, saccharin (Sweet n’ Low), sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (NutraSweet) can cause glucose intolerance—the body’s inability to properly manage the absorption of excess sugar into your blood leading to type two diabetes—by altering your gut bacteria.

This study is incredibly water-tight and, I tell ya, it’s a game-changer. Despite the fact that I’m not alone in my dislike of artificial sweeteners, the establishment—including the American Diabetes Association—has long recommended zero or low calorie drinks, including diet soda, as a solution for diabetics. That might/should change.

I don’t blame them though. Yes, science has existed linking glucose intolerance with artificial sweeteners for a while, although they haven’t been able to make a causal link. For example, here’s a study correlating diet soda intake with the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, which you’ll find published in Diabetes Care, the journal of, ahem, the American Diabetes Association.

What the what? Paging Dr. aacsized  ! Looks like the ADA has a slight case of mixed-signalititis.

Thanks to the new Nature study, confusion like this should become a thing of the past, since we now have a very causal link—via our intestines. This study is super-cool and I want to share all the nerdgasmic details, but it’s a brain-filler, so if you’re look for a short/sweet explanation of the study, check out this Washington Post article. Otherwise, fasten your safety belt, put on your helmet, and keep fingers and toes inside the vehicle; this is going to be fun. Here’s a blow-by-blow.

Blow One: Researchers fed either plain water, water filled with sugar, or water filled with commercial forms of saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame to mice. (As far as lab animal gigs go, getting fed sugar water is pretty choice. Better than having a human ear stitched on your back.) After 11 weeks, the artificial sweetener mice developed “marked glucose intolerance.”

Blow Two: Because saccharin fared the worst, they then compared feeding mice saccharin versus glucose along with a high fat diet (to plump up the mice and therefore see how obesity plays into the situation). Unlike some studies, they didn’t megadose the mice saccharin beyond levels humans would realistically consume. Instead, they consumed about the equivalent of a human drinking three cans of diet soda per day. In five weeks, glucose intolerance reared its ugly head.

Blow Three: To confirm that the problem was gut-related, the researchers fed both high-fat diet and normal diet mice an antibiotic cocktail, wiping out gut bacteria entirely. In four weeks, the glucose intolerance vanished regardless of artificial sweetener consumption, showing that dodgy bacteria was the problem.

Blow Four: To make even more sure the bacteria was causal, they performed “fecal transplants.” (“Ewwww” is right.) They transferred the intestinal flora from both saccharin and glucose mice into mice who’d had their intestines cleared out by antibiotics. Surprise! The mice receiving transplants from saccharin mice developed glucose intolerance six days later.

Blow Five and Blow Six: They did a bunch of RNA testing and more poop swapping to verify what kind of bacteria they were dealing with, to confirm saccharin mice suffered from dysbiosis no matter whatever else they were eating, and probably some other important stuff, but these blows were kind of boring, so let’s skip ahead to…

Blow Seven: Time to test on humans! Using a questionnaire, they determined that people who consumed artificial sweeteners tended to have bigger bellies, higher fasting blood glucose, and a bunch of other metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes) markers. They also tested their intestinal bacteria and found that the artificial sweetener consumers had more of the bad stuff.

Blow Eight: They fed seven healthy volunteers artificial sweeteners. (I love that the study points out these people are “volunteers”, suggesting that most studies rely on coercion, blackmail, or other forms of foul play to enlist subjects.) After just seven days, four of the suckers, I mean volunteers, developed glucose intolerance.

Blow Nine: Things get a little kinky here. Researchers took stool samples from both volunteers who developed glycemic issues and those who didn’t and transferred it into germ-free mice. (“You’re doing what with my poop? I did not sign up for that!!!!”) Sure enough, mice who received the bad poop developed dysbiosis.

So what did we learn from this merry journey? First off, if a scientist in a bar tries to buy you a drink, make sure he doesn’t slip you a mickey and and try to Shanghai you into becoming a “volunteer”. Second, don’t share your poop with anyone. Third, we now have fairly rock-solid science showing that artificial sweeteners, particular saccharin, mess with your blood sugar and may lead to type two diabetes.

tumblr_mjd6l4GwvD1rhals1o2_400My one criticism of this study is that they focused on saccharin, which is a pretty outdated sweetener. The only diet soda I know of that uses the stuff is Tab. This is a little like studying sound quality in various audio devices and choosing to hammer eight-track players. I would like to see more research like this done on aspartame, the stuff you’ll find on most diet pop. Regardless, if you wanted solid evidence that guzzling Diet Coke is a bad thing, this study is sound enough.

As I mentioned earlier, this study showed the effects of about three cans of Tab daily. If you have a diet soda every once-in-a-blue-moon, it’s probably no big deal. Although the same can be said for regular soda, so you might as well drink that instead–although excess sugar causes dysbiosis too.

It’s ironic that artificial sweeteners, which were created as a healthy alternative to sugar, are apparently just as toxic–and addictive. Either way, we all have our poisons. Just understand what you’re getting yourself into and proceed with caution–and moderation.

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7 thoughts on “Artificial Sweetener Smackdown

    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      That’s a great question, Armando. I really wish they would have included Stevia in this study. That said, I’m not too freaked out by it. There’s a lot of chemistry involved in those other three sweeteners, while stevia is pretty basic. Extract it from a leaf, consume it, let it break it down in your intestines into glucose and steviol, absorb the glucose, pass the steviol, and you’re done.

      That said, I wouldn’t consume a ton of it, but I think a little is benign. For example, there’s a tiny, tiny amount in Shakeology, a product that Beachbody makes. They use it for flavor balancing. That doesn’t bug me. (And even if it did, the probiotics, prebiotics, and low glycemic index of the product outweigh the minute chance that this small amount of Stevia might have any negative impact on gut microbes.)

      Is that a good answer?

  1. Kay

    Ok, I give. .., long time diet coke guzzler here. Have stopped and started more times than I care to admit, so I know it is possible for me. Curious though, should I look in to whether I have dysbiosis? How is this tested? Also, can “the damage” be reversed once you go clean? Thanks!

    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      I don’t think you need to be tested unless something else is going wrong and you suspect dysbiosis is the cause. Besides, they test it with a stool sample–and who really likes to poop on a plate?

      Yes, the damage can generally be reversed. I mean, if you have full-tilt diabetes, that’s an issue that might take serious work, but if you’re generally healthy, eating right and drinking right should balance out your gut–although probiotics wouldn’t hurt.

  2. Matt G

    Nutrition Action has a big write-up on artificial sweeteners this month. They use a red/yellow/green light approach. The article gives all the brand names for various sweeteners. Very informative. Not sure if it’s online anywhere.

    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      I see that, Matt. I hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Looks like aspartame and saccharin are to be avoided but sucralose is a caution one. (Stevia is considered safe.) I’m assuming this came out before this study was released. I’m interested to see what they think. I love CSPI, but they have a strong activist bent and sometimes they can reach a little too far. The “Really” cover story in their last issue had a few weird holes in it.

      1. Matt G

        I find their page of research blurbs odd. They write about these small studies that may or may not have context…then debunk them a few issues later. But I enjoy it, I’m happy to contribute to their cause, and I take their info with a grain of…umm…salt (but not too much).

        I also like clipping their recipes and putting them in a folder I’ll never open (serial wannabe chef). Oh, and the food porn on the back page is always fun reading.


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