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Are Artificial Sweeteners Really Such a Sweet Deal?

29th Nov, 2022

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Low-calorie sweeteners (LCS) are becoming more and more widely used by the food industry to create sweet food and drink products that clock in at much lower sugar and calories than their traditional counterparts. LCS can be artificial (e.g aspartame) or natural (e.g stevia) but their common feature is that they are hundreds of times sweeter than normal sugar and have a negligible caloric content. This makes them a good option for those who are looking to lose weight or manage diseases like diabetes as it means they can still enjoy sweet treats and consume less sugar. 

Though still in early infancy, research is emerging that LCS aren’t all they’re made out to be, as studies show that there may be links between LCS intake and gut microbiome dysbiosis, glucose intolerance and increased sugar cravings. There are many LCS available which effect the body slightly differently, and there seems to be emerging trends in how they alter our metabolism. 

Most of the significant data comes from animal studies as there have not yet been enough high quality long-term human studies recreating the same study design. These studies, particularly on saccharin and sucralose, show that with regular intake of LCS, the bacteria profile of the gut shifts to one that is closer to dysbiosis – being more ‘bad’ compared to ‘good’ bacteria (1, 2, 3). There are several consequences of this, but the most significant outcome is the effect of glucose intolerance though disordered insulin release (4, 5). These symptoms, if maintained and combined with other contributing lifestyle factors, can lead to diseases like obesity and diabetes. 

Some human research has shown that regular intake of LCS causes dysfunction in the reward feedback systems in our brains in response to food (6). Despite having provided the sweet food the brain is seeking, because LCSs don’t also provide the calories, the reward system isn’t fully satiated, meaning that the sugar seeking behaviour continues. This means that one could end up over consuming calories until the craving is satisfied (7). 

But its not all doom and gloom! You might have noticed a fair few chewing gum brands using the sweetener Xylitol. Xylitol has been found to neutralise the pH in your mouth, which makes it better for the ‘good’ bacteria that live there whilst making it less hospitable for the ‘bad’ bacteria (8). This could therefore contribute to healthier teeth, preventing bacterial break down of the enamel. 

As with most nutrition recommendations, moderation is key with LCS. Overall, it is best to prioritise whole foods and minimise intake of processed foods, being those most likely to use LCS. For some they may be more beneficial than others, like for weight loss, but due to the lack of consensus from the scientific community, their long-term intake in excess may be more harm than good.

Lulu Gibbons

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