Artificial Sweetners and Your Health- I Might have Been Wrong about this One!

Over the past decade I have been ridiculed on several occasions for my perceived ambivalence about artificial sweeteners.

My stance on them has been as follows: “If they keep you away from excess sugar then I have no problem with their occasional use.”  The advent of Stevia and its cousins in the past few years have made that even less likely but again the choice has been left up to the individual at least by me.

That stance has been based on the following facts:

  1. The “ Thought Leaders” in the field have been internet docs’ diets ( yes most are “owned” by someone) tell them what their audience wants to hear.  I would rather be wrong and admit it when science proves it than just jump on a bandwagon like others.  Unlike me they cater to and placate their audience with whatever they their think will please people.  Then again my web site does not get 2 million hits a month LOL!  Maybe this is why.  I despise when people tell me something as fact but when pinned down say, “ Well it was on Dr Xyz’s web site”.  Yeah and next month when the wind blows a different direction the exact opposite will be on Dr Xyz’s web site.
  2. Web sites routinely misquote the studies.  One web site recently quoted a study claiming it showed massive weight gain in lab animals ( this particular sweetener was sucralose) as well as safety issues.  I read the quoted study and it showed nothing of the kind.  It showed that the equivalent of 1.3 pounds of sucralose did not cause any measurable effects in the animals tested.  My comment which was submitted to said web site 4 months ago is still awaiting moderation.
  3. Nutra Sweet is the most complained against food stuff ever to be created. I hear this one a lot in some of the conferences I go to where said thought leaders routinely pander to the audience.  This is an actual fact.  Never in the history of anything ever subjected to FDA approval has there been more complaints.  That many people cannot be wrong, right?!  Well if you read some of them and they are a matter of public record, things like nutra sweet made aliens abduct my baby are in there- I kid you not.  The FDA is obligated by law to record each and every complaint.  I doubt too many people have actually gone in there and read them!

Now all of this has made me look like a defender of artificial sweeteners to some and invoked the ire and absolute dislike by lots of people.  I am a simple guy in search of the truth. And until recently the truth was I thought sugar was much worse for you.  I am still not 100% convinced it is not, but I may have been wrong and I am willing to admit it.

Recently a study came out that looked at the whole artificial sweetener thing in a brand new light.

Right about now some people are saying ‘“We told ya so!” but the truth is they could not have known about this since the technology is fairly new and the approach to the sweeteners and health is 100% brand new and never before documented in this fashion.

If you like you can say I was WRONG for the RIGHT reason- there was no credible scientific evidence to support the claims against artificial sweeteners at this level before this.

What this study did was take mice and feed them the max dose of saccharin considered safe in humans adjusted for their weight.  Insulin and glucose values were followed for 12 weeks.  Lo and behold it was found that in a substantial portion of the mice blood sugars rose, chronic blood sugar values (hba1c) rose and insulin secretion rose.  While the mice did not become diabetic per se, their sugar values looked like they were. Then they did a very tiny study (7 people) on humans and found that in just over half (4 out of 7) the same thing happened.

The big contribution of this study was that it studied gut micro flora and found that saccharin changed the make up of the bugs in the gut of the mice and the people.  They went one better then and used fecal transplantation (in the mice not the people!) to create the same situation in the mice that were not being adversely affected.

In short what they found was that saccahrin at a dose that could be ingested by people who used a lot of it could in over half the cases ( 4 out of 7) cause abnormal handling of calories and alter blood sugar and insulin in a potential disease causing way.  Ironically they did not see any such response when they used pure sugar in the mice implying that sugar was actually healthier.  They did not try that in people!

The culprit in both the human subjects and the mice that were affected was the same: an alteration in the bugs in the gut.  The “pathologic” shift of gut micro flora caused an improved metabolism of energy. Said another way changing the bugs in your gut may make you more efficient at harvesting calories because that is what those bugs do- help you digest your food.  They do this even better when you add in a high quality probiotic. The “bad” bugs are good a digesting food so you get more calories out of the same diet and Bingo up goes your blood sugar.

Now the study stopped short of saying this causes weight gain but it certainly could be a possible mechanism for it.

I have not yet jumped off the fence on artificial sweeteners yet for several reasons.

  1. Saccharin is one of many artificial sweeteners and now they should all be tested. It is not unreasonable to expect they may change gut micro flora too but we don’t necessarily know that they will cause the same result
  2. Mice are herbivores,humans are omnivores and generalizing food handling between species is always questionable.  Food questionnaires were also the tool of choice for this study which introduces another element of uncertainty
  3. 7 people is too tiny to say much other than “That is interesting”

Still I am letting you know I may be wrong to be ambivalent about artificial sweetener use.  I may be wrong to vilify sugar and carbs the way I do (although honestly I doubt it!!!).  It is possible that artificial sweeteners really do cause weight gain and diabetic like behavior in at least some of the people that ingest a lot of them.  But please understand this does not mean they cause cancer, autism, Alzheimer Disease etc.

I will keep you posted as I am sure there will be more developments on this but for now all of you who were so vehemently criticizing me for “defending the use of artificial sweeteners” can say I might indeed have been wrong.

When there is real science behind it I am always willing to learn from my mistakes.



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