Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners were introduced over a century ago and are used a means to provide sweetness to foods without the added calories and sugar. The most common artificial sweeteners are Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame Potassium, Neotame and Sucralose.
How do artificial sweeteners contain no calories?
Firstly, let's take a look at how taste is formed. Taste buds contain a set of 50 - 100 specialised cells known as the taste - receptor cells and it the taste receptors that are involved in distinguishing the five elements of taste; sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. These taste receptors are found on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus, the cheek and epiglottis.
A sweet taste is the result of a binding of molecules to a specific receptor of protein. Once a molecule is attached to a receptor protein, this is when a cascade of events begins in the taste - sensory cell. The process involves the release of a signaling molecule to an adjoining sensory neuron, which in turn, causes the neuron to send impulses to the brain.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic compounds which stimulate the sweet taste receptors in our mouth.
Artificial sweeteners contain no calories because most pass through the human gastrointestinal tract without being digested. Our body does not metabolise artificial sweeteners. Substances that are not metabolized through the biochemical pathways, for the creation of energy does not provide any calories.
Should You Eat Artificial Sweeteners?
Are Artificial Sweeteners any better than Sugar?
Research into artificial sweeteners has become ever more prominent in recent years. Studies into the health benefits of artificial sweeteners are inconclusive, with studies suggesting diet sodas are no better than sugary drinks.
Several studies found that replacing sugar with artificially sweetened drinks reduced the number of calories consumed and promoted weight loss. Yet, other studies have indicated no effect, while others have concluded weight gain.
A Key Concern
Consuming sweet foods signals to the brain to eat more food. However, a key concern with regards to artificial sweeteners is that they affect the body’s ability process how many calories are being consumed. Research has found that sugar and artificial sweeteners affect the brain in different ways. Therefore, even though artificial sweeteners contain zero calories, they cause us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, leading to an overconsumption of calories and in turn weight gain.
Researchers at the University of California-San Diego undertook an experiment in which volunteers took small sips of water sweetened with sugar or sucralose and functional MRI scans were taken to examine the differences. The results showed that while sugar activated regions of the brain involved in food reward, sucralose didn’t. The researchers suggest sucralose “may not fully satisfy a desire for natural caloric sweet ingestion.” Therefore, this can have implications on the benefits of using artificial sweetener as an effective way to manage sweet cravings.
Bellisle et al 2001 cohort study of 4278 French adults, aged 45–60 years concluded that a higher body mass index (BMI) and higher waist/hip ratios were associated with a more frequent use of artificial sweeteners. The study also suggests that overweight persons were using intense sweeteners as a strategy for weight control. Therefore, while artificial sweeteners may not contain any calories, the frequent amount and the dependability that some people possess is harmful and can result in weight gain.
A further study examined the long-term relationship between consuming artificially sweetened drinks and weight. The 3,682 participants were followed for 7-8 years and their weights were monitored. After adjusting for common factors that contribute to weight gain such as dieting, exercising change, or diabetes status, the results of the study found that those who drank artificially sweetened drinks had a 47% higher increase in BMI than those who did not.
Changes to Gut Bacteria
Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners alter the guts intestinal bacteria. It is believed that artificial sweeteners have the ability to disrupt the bacteria in the intestine that directs metabolism, the conversion of food to energy.
A recent study, conducted by Suez et al, indicates that artificial sweeteners increase the number of gut bacteria which is involved in taking the energy from food and converting it into fat instead of fuel.
The experiment involved feeding 10-week old mice a daily dose of saccharin, sucralose or aspartame. The evidence shows that after 11 weeks the mice had developed changes in their gut bacteria and glucose intolerance. However, the scientists were able to reverse the effects by returning the gut bacteria to normal.
Increased Risk of Diabetes
Many researchers believe that while artificial sweeteners still trigger the sweet taste, it is may be that tricking your brain into thinking you are consuming sugar can be increasing the risk of diabetes.
Consuming artificial sweeteners still activates the sweet taste. The body prepares itself for the calories from sugar and the pancreas releases insulin, however, there is no 'sugar hit'. The expected sugar does not come and therefore, your body continues to signal that it needs more, which results in carb cravings.
Over time, these constant surges in insulin that are not answered to by sugar can cause the body's cells to become less efficient in responding to the signal to pump out more insulin.
While many are switching from sugar to artificial sweeteners, to prevent that very condition, it seems artificial sweeteners may also be affecting our bodies ability to regulate blood sugar, resulting in metabolic changes.
In the short term, cutting back on calories from sugar by substituting with artificial sweeteners may seem beneficial. However, in the long-term, serious health consequences can occur.
Research shows that consuming artificial sweeteners loosely does not seem to have the same negative effects as if you were consuming a frequent and intense amount. However, if you are looking for something sweet, there is nothing wrong sticking to the real stuff, all in moderation.
Bellisle, F and Drewnowski, A. (2007). Intense sweeteners, energy intake and the control of body weight. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 61, 691–700. Available from: http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v61/n6/full/1602649a.html . [Accessed 19 March 2017].
Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. (2008). Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring Md). 16(8):1894-900. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18535548 . [Accessed 19 March 2017].
Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, Zilberman-Schapira G, Thaiss CA, Maza O, Israeli D, Zmora N, Gilad S, Weinberger A, Kuperman Y, Harmelin A, Kolodkin-Gal I, Shapiro H, Halpern Z, Segal E, Elinav E. (2014).Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 181-6. Available from: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/pdf/nature13793.pdf . [Accessed 19 March 2017].
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