Artificial Sweeteners: Not So Innocent After All
Artificial sweeteners have a checkered past. Once hailed as the answer to too many sugar calories in the diet, they were marketed as “zero-calorie” substitutes. You need only glance at the soda aisle in your supermarket to witness the popularity of “diet” soft drinks featuring “zero calorie” artificial sweeteners.
First came cyclamate and saccharine. Discovered in the 1930s, cyclamate was banned by the FDA in 1969 after data emerged indicating that this synthetic chemical might increase the risk of certain cancers (not to mention causing shriveled testicles in males). Saccharin is a coal tar derivative. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the healthfulness of this artificial product, keep in mind that the FDA attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban it in 1969. It remains on the market, to which I say: Buyer beware.
Concerns have also been raised about more recent additions to the artificial sweetener arsenal, such as aspartame (e.g. Nutrasweet®) and sucralose (e.g. Splenda®). Now scientists at Washington University School of Medicine have shown that sucralose affects the way obese test subjects react to subsequent glucose. Glucose is a simple sugar that circulates throughout the bloodstream after food is digested. It’s a basic source of energy, but too much is harmful. Secreted in response to glucose, insulin is a hormone that helps cells take up glucose so it can be burned for energy.
In the experiment, obese subjects consumed sucralose before drinking a test glucose solution. Their bodies responded to the glucose with higher levels of insulin, and higher levels of blood glucose than subjects who did not get sucralose first. Although it was assumed that a zero-calorie sweetener would not affect glucose handling, this experiment showed that such is not the case. The implication is that artificial sweeteners may affect diabetes risk in ways we don’t fully understand.