Scientists have been studying the links between artificial sweeteners and obesity and diabetes for some time, but a solid cause-and-effect relationship had not been established. Now a large study has been done by investigators at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University to look at how artificial sweeteners affect biomarkers. The results added evidence to the hypothesis that the development of diabetes and obesity is sometimes related to the consumption of synthetic sugars and sweeteners. While a cause-and-effect relationship still has not been found, the researchers stress moderation when using artificial sugars.
"Despite the addition of these non-caloric artificial sweeteners to our everyday diets, there has still been a drastic rise in obesity and diabetes," said lead researcher Brian Hoffman. "In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes, albeit through very different mechanisms from each other." The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Physiological Society.
Artificial sweeteners are among the most commonly used food additives. The researchers wanted to see how they were impacting the health of blood vessels and their linings.
For this work, rats were fed diets that were high in two forms of sugar - glucose and fructose, or zero-calorie artificial sweeteners - aspartame or acesulfame potassium. The scientists assessed concentrations of fats, amino acids, and biochemicals in the blood of the animals after consumption.
The researchers observed that artificial sweeteners change how the animals process fat, and how they get energy from the synthetic sweet stuff. It was also found that acesulfame potassium can build up in the blood, harming the lining of blood vessels in the process.
"We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down," Hoffmann said. "We also observed that replacing these sugars with non-caloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism."
Further research will be needed to fully understand this link, and to find out if artificial sweeteners have to be avoided.
"It is not as simple as 'stop using artificial sweeteners' being the key to solving overall health outcomes related to diabetes and obesity," Hoffmann added. "If you chronically consume these foreign substances [as with sugar] the risk of negative health outcomes increases. As with other dietary components, I like to tell people moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet."
Aisling Pigott, is a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association urged caution when interpreting the study. He noted that animal models used in the work might not reflect human physiology accurately, but told Newsweek that moderation in the use of sweets is indeed key to good health.
"We do need to be aware that overuse or excessive use of any products-including sugar or sweeteners - is not beneficial to health," Pigott said. "In addition, high levels of sweetener intake will still mean we are craving and desiring sugary foods without any 'energy intake,' and there are question marks about the impact of this on satiety."