Artificial sweeteners linked to risk of obesity and diabetes

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Increasing concerns about obesity and sugar consumption have seen many soft drink brands change their ingredients to low or zero calorie sweeteners instead of sugar, but new evidence suggests that some artificial sweeteners may have their own health consequences.

Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University claim to have found a link between consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The scientists fed two groups of rats with food that was high in either sugar (glucose or fructose) or calorie-free artificial sweeteners (aspartame or acesulfame potassium). Their blood was then studied using a large-scale technique that tracks minute metabolic changes, known as metabolomics.

After three weeks, the researchers saw significant negative changes in both groups of rats. These changes included the concentrations of blood lipids (fats).

It was found that artificial sweeteners accumulated in the blood and harmed the cells that line blood vessels. The study authors said that these changes could contribute to obesity and diabetes over time.

In the rats’ blood, the researchers also found evidence of protein breakdown, suggesting the bodies turned to burning away muscle as a source of energy.

The results suggest that consuming sweeteners change how the body processes fat and gets its energy at a cellular level.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2014–15 National Health Survey, an estimated 1.2 million Australian adults aged 18 years and over had diabetes. The figure includes people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes occurs when the body become unable to maintain proper glucose levels, which is a process that is regulated by the hormone insulin. The breakdown causes people to either stop responding to insulin as easily or completely stop producing it. Excessive sugar in our diets is suggested to help cause diabetes by overworking the body’s insulin-producing system as it’s used to bring high blood glucose levels back to normal.

Lead author Brian Hoffman, a biomedical engineer at Marquette University, said: “Both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes.

“We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down.

“We also observed that replacing these sugars with non-caloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism.

“If you chronically consume these foreign substances (as with sugar) the risk of negative health outcomes increases.”

Moderation is key

The findings of the study add to the growing body of research that suggests sweeteners are not better alternatives to sugar. The Food Standards Australia New Zealand agency recommends a daily limit for aspartame (artificial sweetener) of 40mg/kg of body weight. With the growing number of soft drinks in particular now containing artificial sweeteners, it seems relatively easy to exceed this limit.

It’s important to note that not all artificial sweeteners are created equal. While this study identified the negative effects of artificial sweeteners, some sweeteners – such as Stevia – are associated with health benefits.

Dr Hoffmann said: “It is not as simple as stop using artificial sweeteners being the key to solving overall health outcomes related to diabetes and obesity. As with other dietary components, what I like to tell people is that most things in moderation are going to be fine.

“So if you enjoy your diet soda here and there, than have your diet soda here and there. If you like your normal soda here and there, have it here and there. It’s when people start to chronically consume these – say, a person drinks two, three, four of [these drinks] everyday – then we should start to be concerned because you’re starting to introduce these biochemical changes and the body has no time to recover.”

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