Are Artificial Sweeteners Too Good To Be True?
The effect of these substances on your microbiome and health
Who else seems to have a sweet tooth that just won't quit? It is estimated that the average American consumes six cups of sugar a week (1). That's equal to 152 pounds a year! Our voracious appetite for sugar has resulted in the onset of many diseases like diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, and heart disease. Sugary drinks in particular, are responsible for over 180,000 deaths a year (2).
To replace sugar and combat these diseases, the food industry introduced artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners offer the same taste of sugar, but without the calories. Many consider them to be safe, and even beneficial, due to their low caloric content. Artificial sweeteners are one of the most used food additives in the world, and can be found in sodas, baked goods, candies, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, and dairy products (3). For comparison, a can of regular soda has about 160 calories, whereas a can of diet soda with artificial sweeteners contain nearly zero (4).
So what's the catch?
Recent studies have shown that artificial sweeteners alter our gut microbiota that may result in adverse health outcomes (5). Scientists showed that these substances not only changed our gut microbiota, but were actually toxic to them (6). Specifically, when gut bacteria were exposed to artificial sweeteners, they stopped their healthy activity and grew at a slower rate. Artificial sweeteners also promoted the growth of certain gut bacteria that are highly efficient at converting food into fat.
The combined effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiota are thought to cause a wide range of diseases from certain cancers to type-2 diabetes. One study found that individuals who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to be overweight than their counterparts (7). The effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome may be the reason why people who switch from regular soda to diet sodas in an effort to lose weight fail to do so.
Currently the FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners for consumption in the United States: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame (8). While scientists are still putting in the work to pinpoint the exact role artificial sweeteners have on the gut microbiome, we can take preventative measures to limit our exposure to these substances by being aware of what's in the ingredients list of the food items we consume.