Several scientific studies have linked sugar to a number of health issues like obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and even behavioural disorders. However, sugar substitutes might also not be a viable alternative. According to a study published in Nature on 17 September 2014, non-caloric sweeteners (NAS) can trigger glucose intolerance in mice and people.
Sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners are widely used as safe food additives consumed by lean and obese individuals and diabetics and non-diabetics. The low calorie content makes it safe for people with diabetes. However, supporting data is insufficient and controversial to prove its safety. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel showed the unexpected effect NAS has on gut microbiota causing glucose intolerance and upping the risk of diabetes.
AdvertisementImmunologist Eran Elinav and computational biologist Eran Segal identified changes in the composition and function of mice gut microbiome after the mice consumed sugar substitutes. According to the researchers, these changes are similar to those linked to obesity and diabetes in humans. The team observed that sugar substitutes have a direct impact and effect on the body's ability to utilize glucose. Glucose intolerance is the body's inability to cope with large amounts of sugar in the diet and this is the first indication pointing to the onset of adult diabetes.
In the mice experiment, the scientists gave mice water with sugar substitutes (amount equivalent to those permitted by the U.S Food and Drug Administration - FDA). These mice developed glucose intolerance as compared those mice that drank just water or sugar water.
To confirm this finding with humans, the researchers gave 7 healthy individuals (without a history of sugar substitute consumption) a high dose of saccharin (5 milligrams/kilogram of body weight which is the FDA's maximum acceptable intake per day) on 6 consecutive days. Of these, 4 individuals showed signs of glucose intolerance.
Similarly in a cohort of 381 non-diabetic volunteers, the researchers found that those who regularly consumed sugar substitutes in high amounts showed higher fasting blood glucose levels (FBS), poorer glucose tolerance and different gut microbiome profiles as against those who did not use these sugar substitutes.
Based on the findings from human data, the researchers reported that sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners "may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact (diabetes) epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight" (Nature). The study points out evidence that sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners are not that safe after all and must be used with some caution given its links to increasing the risk of diabetes.