The Not-So-Sweet Health Risks of Sugar Substitutes

By Mia James

Many of us have embraced a real-is-better philosophy when it comes to food. We are choosing butter over marga­rine, natural beef and chicken over processed meats, and fresh vegeta­bles over canned. The same gener­ally goes for our choice of sweeten­ers, as honey, cane, and fruit-based sugars like date and maple sugars are turning up increasingly in place of artificial alternatives like saccha­rin, sucralose, and aspartame.

Clearly, though, we have not com­pletely let go of fake sweeteners. Products such as Sweet’n Low® (saccharin), Splenda® (sucralose), and Equal® (aspartame) are read­ily available in grocery aisles and coffee shops. Whatever the rea­son—because you believe you are cutting calories, managing blood sugar, or avoiding another health concern—it is possible that these sugar stand-ins carry some serious health risks. Research has linked them to a disruption in the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar as well as metabolic changes that, if severe, can lead to diabetes.

It is a bit of a cruel twist that fake sweeteners can upset blood sugar when many of us have reached for them in an effort to manage blood sugar. But, according to a recent study, artificial sweeteners may be linked to the development of glucose intolerance—an inability to properly metabolize the sugar glucose. Findings suggest the sugar substitutes may interfere with bac­teria composition in the intestine that helps us process sugars. This can result in glucose intolerance, which shows up as high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), and can develop into metabolic syndrome (a combi­nation of factors that multiply the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke) as well as type 2 diabetes.

Researchers do not entirely understand how artificial sweeten­ers change gut bacteria. But, as they have documented differences in the gut bacteria of people who use sugar substitutes and those who do not, it is reasonable to think about a connection, especially considering that glucose intolerance has been observed in people who use the fake sweeteners.

With this information in mind, those of us with a sweet tooth may want to reach for a natural sugar instead of an imitation. A hint of the real thing may be better for our health in the long run, not to men­tion a much tastier treat.

Source Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014;514(7521):181-86. doi: 10.1038/nature13793.