Risk of a sour aftertaste to artificial sweeteners


Artificial sweeteners have become increasingly controversial due to their questionable influence on consumers’ health. Used in so many foods, most of us are unaware we often consume this added ingredient. While there is no consensus regarding the health consequences of artificial sweeteners, as they have not been fully investigated, consumption has been linked with adverse health effects such as cancer, weight gain, metabolic disorders, type-2 diabetes and alteration of gut microbiota activity. Perhaps even more alarmingly, artificial sweeteners have been identified as emerging environmental pollutants, and can be found in receiving waters, i.e., surface waters, groundwater aquifers and drinking waters. This would imply we may be embedding them into our food chain in a way that it may become increasingly difficult to escape potential health problems associated with them.

The hidden cost of zero-calories?

For many years study after study has raised questions about artificial sweeteners, but earlier this year we wrote up new issues around alternatives to sugar after it was reported zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, meant to reduce consumption of sugar, were linked to diabetes and obesity.

The research suggested artificial sweeteners alter how bodies process fat and obtain energy, with one of the authors, Brian Hoffmann, assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, quoted as saying sugar replacements aren’t a solution to the diabetes and obesity epidemic. He went on to add, “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.” He further warned there is no simple answer to the question: “Which is worse, sugar or artificial sweeteners?”

A diet high in sugar has negative health outcomes, but this study suggested a diet high in artificial sugars has the same.

Splenda® not so splendid

Then more recently sucralose (a widely used artificial sweetener sold under the trade name Splenda®) came under the microscope, with a study finding that when sucralose is metabolized in the guts of rats it produces previously unidentified metabolites. This sparked interest because the results differ from the studies used to garner regulatory approval for sucralose which reported the substance was not broken down in the body. The new study also found that the metabolites were highly lipophilic acetylated compounds — meaning they are easily dissolved in fat. That means they are more likely to stick around in the body. No wonder the researchers felt it may be time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose.

Toxic effects on gut microbes

Article after article has been written about the impact of our microbiome on our health, with the importance of looking after the ‘friendly bacteria’ in our gut increasingly understood. It’s already appreciated that the higher the proportion of processed food in our diet the worse this tends to be for the complex microbial community that sits within us, with negative consequences for our health. So, when a new collaborative study indicated relative toxicity of six artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and acesulfame potassium-k) and 10 sport supplements containing these artificial sweeteners it got my attention.

According to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, US FDA-approved artificial sweeteners and sport supplements were found to be toxic to digestive gut microbes.

However, what was really extraordinary was how they discovered the bacteria found in the digestive system became toxic when exposed to concentrations of only one mg./ml. of the artificial sweeteners. Using a modified bioluminescent E. coli bacteria, which emit light when they detect toxicants, they also acted as a sensing model representative of the microbial system. This literally lit up the problem. As a result, not only might the study further the understanding of the relative toxicity of artificial sweeteners and the potential of negative effects on the gut microbiome and human health, the bioluminescent bacterial panel might potentially be used for detecting artificial sweeteners in the environment.


Inevitably more research will be required (when it comes to food, when is more research not needed) but with study after study accumulating evidence of problems with artificial sweeteners it’s time to consider whether they are worth the risk when it comes to consuming products labelled zero calories, low-fat, diet, ‘lite’ or reduced sugar, especially when we bear in mind many of us will already be unknowingly consuming artificial sweeteners in many other processed food products. However, perhaps the biggest irony associated with the potential damage from artificial sweeteners will be from their use in sports drinks, where they may end up subverting the health-giving benefits of the exercise.

NOTE: start reading labels: whether it be soft drinks, baked goods, sweets/candy, desserts/puddings, canned food, ketchup, salad dressings, dairy products, jams/jellies always check the label.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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