Artificial sweeteners (non-nutritive sweeteners) have been controversial for quite some time. In recent years, they have exploded in the nutrition scene since the FDA approved eight new artificial sweeteners in 2019.
However, the first artificial sweetener was created back in 1879 by Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist at Johns Hopkins University. It was named saccharin. Right away, saccharin was a hit and achieved fame and notoriety, even being promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1911.
However, as time went on and more research was done on saccharin, the safety of this artificial sweetener came into question. In the 1970s, a study linked saccharin to bladder cancer in rats, and the world took notice.
Since then, science has gone back and forth on the merit of this study and ultimately decided that the evidence was inconclusive. This conclusion caused most people to let their guard down surrounding artificial sweeteners, and we saw a huge increase in products using artificial sweeteners being advertised as "zero sugar."
Nowadays, we are familiar with products like aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame and accept them in many of our foods. However, the question remains: are they okay for human consumption? Do they have undesirable effects?
New research on the effects of artificial sweeteners
On September 1, 2022, a research article was published in Cell that shed some new light on the effects of artificial sweeteners on our bodies. Cell is a well-known publication that publishes over 50 scientific journals and has been doing so for over 45 years.
The study they published looked at artificial sweeteners' effects on the microbiomes and glycemic responses in humans. This study was very well done; the researchers started with a sample of 1,300 humans and paired that list all the way down to just 120 people who were fit for the study. This study was a randomized controlled trial.
The conditions they used to weed people out of this study were excellent and allowed the researchers to focus on the best subjects that would produce the most natural results.
The primary condition they used to determine whether or not someone was fit for the study was their current intake levels of artificial sweeteners. This study only accepted people whose diets avoided artificial sweeteners altogether. I think this was an intelligent decision on the part of the researchers because it means that the subjects they used would have a totally novel response to consuming artificial sweeteners relative to those who are used to consuming artificial sweeteners.
The layout of the study was simple and well thought out. The subjects were split into two groups: one to consume artificial sweeteners and one to be a control group. The group that was assigned artificial sweeteners was further divided to receive one of the following artificial sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, or stevia.
The subjects who were receiving an artificial sweetener were given doses of their respective artificial sweetener for two weeks and in amounts that were in line with daily recommended intake values. I think this last point is really important because, in some of these studies, you will see researchers giving their subjects doses that are totally unrealistic for typical human consumption. When this happens, you will see results that are not typical of an average human and can lead people to believe incorrect conclusions about something.
From there, the subjects had to wear continuous glucose monitors and self-administered oral glucose tests. At the end of the study, the main results that they looked at were insulin responses, blood glucose responses, and the gut microbiome. This is where a potential problem comes into play. Having the subjects self-administer tests can be problematic due to errors in testing. Someone who is unfamiliar with a self-administered test can easily make a mistake during testing, which could throw off their individual results. There is no evidence to suggest that this happened, but it is something to be aware of when you are evaluating it for yourself.
What they found was that in the groups that received sucralose and saccharin, there was a statistically significant increase in blood glucose levels. At the same time, stevia and aspartame created no difference in blood glucose levels. However, despite the rise in blood glucose, none of the groups had increased insulin levels as a result of consuming artificial sweeteners, which is good news for people with diabetes.
As far as the microbiome is concerned, all groups that were given artificial sweeteners saw altered microbiomes when stool samples were collected.
What does this mean?
In the past decade, artificial sweeteners have been promoted as a neutral additive to foods that do not affect the human body. They were seen as this thing that could be put into foods and have the desired sweetening effect without any of the adverse side effects sugar has on the human condition.
However, this study shows us that we cannot be so sure of that claim. While artificial sweeteners have less effect on blood sugar levels and insulin, this study clearly shows that they still have an impact. In the case of sucralose and saccharin, a statistically significant increase in blood glucose levels was shown to occur.
We also saw that there were changes to the gut microbiome.
The important distinction here that this study makes is that there is a change in blood glucose. Most, if not all, of the studies that we currently have that shine a positive light on artificial sweeteners, show no effects on blood glucose when consuming artificial sweeteners. This difference highlights an important question: does the consumption of artificial sweeteners have an initial impact on blood glucose that wanes over time?
Unfortunately, the science is not clear yet. What it does show us is that we need to have more studies that look at the effects on people who do not consume artificial sweeteners and begin to consume them over many years.
What is true is this: if you are currently someone who is consuming foods and beverages that are sweetened with sugar, it will be to your benefit if you switch to artificial sweeteners. Studies have shown time and time again that people who switch from consuming sugar to consuming artificial sweeteners consume fewer calories overall throughout the day, have better blood glucose levels, and have better insulin levels.
Jordan Tank is a certified personal trainer in Columbus, Ohio, and a certified fitness nutrition specialist. He obtained both his certifications through the American Council on Exercise. He has worked with and trained over 100 individuals, including division 1 college athletes and national-level martial arts competitors. Jordan's focus on training and nutrition is helping men and women lead longer, healthier lives that are sustainable.