At Whispers, it’s easy to order a black coffee or tea and mindlessly grab one or two yellow packets of Splenda to dump in. A harmless act – after all, it’s almost the same as sugar, right? According to a recent study in Nature, however, artificial sweeteners can actually alter gut bacteria, resulting in glucose intolerance similar to the effects of obesity and diabetes.
Yanina Pepino, a research assistant at the Washington University Medical School, conducted research suggesting that sucralose may not only affect the levels of these gut bacteria, but also glucose
metabolism itself. Mice given 10 percent solutions of saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame (pink, yellow, and blue packets, respectively) showed significantly higher glucose levels than those given regular water or even comparable amounts of glucose water. Saccharin in particular appears to be the most insidious because it is amplified by high-fat diets, and amounts as low as ten packets of Sweet N’ Low a day have been deemed unsafe by the FDA. Although only the heaviest coffee drinkers might seem at risk, it’s easy to lose track of how much sugar substitute you’re actually consuming considering the ubiquity of reduced-sugar foods, sodas, and chewing gum.
While other studies have already demonstrated a link between artificial sweetener intake, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, they failed to determine causality; obesity may cause diabetes, which could lead to higher reliance on artificial sweeteners, or artificial sweeteners could cause obesity and diabetes. Described by University of Chicago pathologist Cathryn Nagler as an “elegant and home-run experiment that shows causality in mice,” researchers transplanted the feces of saccharin-consuming mice into germ-free mice, which resulted in similarly elevated blood-sugar levels. Fortunately, an antibiotics regimen restored gut bacteria levels and decreased glucose intolerance in mice.
Artificial sweeteners pose additional health risks because of their psychological effect; our bodies expect nourishment in response to sweetness, so using sugar substitutes to trick the body can disrupt its regulation of caloric intake. Interestingly, researchers Davidson and Swithers discovered rats consuming only saccharin-sweetened yogurt actually gained more weight than those consuming naturally-sweetened yogurt. Though the glucose diet contained significantly more calories, the rats on a saccharin-sweetened diet consumed more (even after a rich meal of chocolate) and radiated less body heat.
In response to the Pure Food & Drug Act in 1906, a USDA director notified President Roosevelt of the organization’s research regarding the adverse effects of saccharin. The president responded, “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot,” demonstrating how the harmlessness of artificial sweeteners has been ingrained in the public consciousness for more than a century. According to a study conducted by Northeastern’s Dr. Ralph Walton, 100% of industry-funded studies considered aspartame a safe alternative while 92 percent of independently-funded studies noted its adverse effects.
Although it may be difficult to reduce both sugar and artificial sweetener intake, we (especially those of us with a sweet tooth) should think more carefully when reaching for a colorful and innocent-looking packet. Meanwhile, it will be up to researchers to spend more time considering realistic alternatives that make your favorite drink a bit sweeter and healthier.