Health

Research Shows That Artificial Sweeteners Can Have Unexpected Effects on the Body

Woman Gut Digestion Health

The study demonstrates that non-nutritive sweeteners have an effect on the human body.

According to a controlled experiment, these sugar substitutes have a variety of impacts on people’s gut microbes and glucose metabolism.

Artificial sweeteners and sugar replacements, also referred to as non-nutritive sweeteners, claim to provide all the sweetness of sugar without the calories. However, contrary to popular assumption, such sweeteners are not inert: They do have an impact on the human body, according to a controlled trial conducted by Weizmann Institute of Science researchers and published in the journal Cell.

In fact, some can influence the trillions of microorganisms that reside in our guts and regulate our blood sugar levels by altering the microbiomes of human consumers. Furthermore, different individuals respond to sweeteners in very different ways.

A Weizmann Institute study on mice conducted in 2014 revealed that certain non-nutritive sweeteners could be causing the alterations in sugar metabolism that they are meant to prevent. A team of researchers led by Professor Eran Elinav of Weizmann’s Systems Immunology Department screened roughly 1,400 prospective volunteers in the new experiment, choosing 120 who carefully avoided any artificially sweetened foods or beverages.

Six groups were then formed out of the volunteers. Participants in four of the groups received sachets containing one of the following sweeteners: saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, or stevia, each in quantities that were below the recommended daily consumption. The two other groups acted as controls.

The research was led by Dr. Jotham Suez, a former graduate student of Elinav’s who is now a principal investigator at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Yotam Cohen, a graduate student in Elinav’s lab. It was carried out in partnership with Professor Eran Segal of Weizmann’s Computer Science and Applied Mathematics and Molecular Cell Biology Departments.

The researchers found that two weeks of consuming all four sweeteners changed the composition and function of the microbiome and of the small molecules the gut microbes secrete into people’s blood – each sweetener in its own way. They also found that two of the sweeteners, saccharin, and sucralose, strongly altered glucose tolerance – that is, proper glucose metabolism – in the recipients. Such alterations, in turn, could contribute to metabolic disease. In contrast, no changes in either the microbiome or glucose tolerance were found in either of the two control groups.

The changes in gut microbes caused by sweeteners were strongly associated with changes in glucose tolerance. “These findings reinforce the view of the microbiome as a hub that integrates the signals coming from the human body’s own systems and from external factors such as the food we eat, the medications we take, our lifestyle and physical surroundings,” Elinav says.

To check whether changes in the microbiome were indeed responsible for impaired glucose tolerance, the researchers transplanted gut microbes from more than 40 trial participants into groups of germ-free mice that had never consumed non-nutritive sweeteners. In each trial group, the transplants had been collected from several “top responders” (trial participants featuring the biggest changes in glucose tolerance) and several “bottom responders” (those featuring the least changes in glucose tolerance).

Strikingly, recipient mice showed patterns of glucose tolerance that largely reflected those of the human donors. Mice that received microbiomes from the “top responders” had the most pronounced alterations in glucose tolerance, compared to mouse recipients of microbiomes from “bottom responders” and from human controls. In follow-up experiments, the researchers determined how the different sweeteners affected the abundance of specific species of gut bacteria, their function, and the small molecules they secrete into the bloodstream.

“Our trial has shown that non-nutritive sweeteners may impair glucose responses by altering our microbiome, and they do so in a highly personalized manner, that is, by affecting each person in a unique way,” Elinav says. “In fact, this variability was to be expected, because of the unique composition of each person’s microbiome.”

Elinav continues: “The health implications of the changes that non-nutritive sweeteners may elicit in humans remain to be determined, and they merit new, long-term studies. In the meantime, it’s important to stress that our findings do not imply in any way that sugar consumption, shown to be deleterious to human health in many studies, is superior to non-nutritive sweeteners.”

Reference: “Personalized microbiome-driven effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on human glucose tolerance” by Jotham Suez, Yotam Cohen, Rafael Valdés-Mas, Uria Mor, Mally Dori-Bachash, Sara Federici, Niv Zmora, Avner Leshem, Melina Heinemann, Raquel Linevsky, Maya Zur, Rotem Ben-Zeev Brik, Aurelie Bukimer, Shimrit Eliyahu-Miller, Alona Metz, Ruthy Fischbein, Olga Sharov, Sergey Malitsky, Maxim Itkin, Noa Stettner, Alon Harmelin, Hagit Shapiro, Christoph K. Stein-Thoeringer, Eran Segal and Eran Elinav, 19 August 2022, Cell.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2022.07.016

The study was funded by the Jeanne and Joseph Nissim Center for Life Sciences Research, the Swiss Society Institute for Cancer Prevention Research, the Sagol Institute for Longevity Research, the Sagol Weizmann-MIT Bridge Program, the Norman E Alexander Family M Foundation Coronavirus Research Fund, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Rising Tide Foundation, Mike and Valeria Rosenbloom Foundation, the Adelis Foundation, the Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation, the Isidore and Penny Myers Foundation, Miel de Botton, the Vainboim Family, and Charles S. Rothschild.

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  • The sugar industry has spent millions funding research to damage the image of artificial sweeteners. There is no doubt in my mind that the real danger to human health is sucrose. This piece of research omits two very important sweeteners: cyclamate and acesulfam-K. Cyclamate was banned in the UK and USA in the early 70's. The research was funded by the sugar industry. It has subsequently been reinstated. Prof Yudkin described sugar as pure white and deadly, sadly his career cannot be reinstated.

    • Have you considered that maybe both are bad for their own reasons? This isn't a fight about good or evil, facts are reality full stop.

  • More to the point, the artificial sweeteners taste awful. Sour or bitter. chemical aftertastes.. and most who've had their palates changed by a sweetness oriented diet, apparently cannot detect these flavors. They're disgusting and I have been in the unfortunate situation to go hungry and thirsty rather than consume those gross substances. :(

  • The article describes the dosage as "well below the recommended daily consumption" which tells me NOTHING. Without that information the article is a) not useful and b) not good science reporting.

  • Yeah but it seemed like stevia was not that bad. And what about other ones like Allulose, Yacona or Monk Fruit? Not all use bad you just have to choose the right ones but the industry choose the cheapest sucralose and alcohol based sugars. Those are really bad for you.

  • Not enough detail about the dose or response in the study. Changes in the hit microbiome occur with every food. This was obviously funded by the sugar industry supporters.

    • This research was done at a world renowned public university, not a private corporation. They have no stake in the sugar game.

  • "In the meantime, it’s important to stress that our findings do not imply in any way that sugar consumption, shown to be deleterious to human health in many studies, is superior to non-nutritive sweeteners."

    You can tell who read the whole article vs who stopped when they felt inconvenienced based on the comments they make that exclude this explicit quote lol.

  • 10% increased risk? Over what risk level to begin with? Like the cancer causing study (where Sucralose showed zero risk and most others were a tiny percentage increase, if the study wasn't flawed in some way), it's miniscule in the long run compared to other things and can probably be offset by consuming some things that reduce risk of heart issues (or cancer). What's the increased rate of Type 2 Diabetes if you use/drink sugar drinks instead?

    Besides, like literally EVERYTHING these days, it's bad for you (how many times did studies waffle between coffee being good or bad for you depending on what they were TRYING TO PROVE.
    Like most things, if you look only for what you want to prove, you'll probably find at least some evidence. I cannot think of a single thing that doesn't cause cancer or increase some risk of something that isn't a vegetable (and if someone took a dump on your spinach, you could get E-Coli and die as has happened already with several vegetables in recent years including lettuce at Wendy's this past month so it's not exactly risk free either).

    So, apparently we're supposed to eat greens like cattle all day long and never drink anything but unflavored, unsweetened water. YUCK. Honestly, I'd rather die at 70 and have lived a life where I enjoyed food and drink than live like a 95 year old at 25 to try and live to be 95, only to find my quality of life trapped in a nursing home, drugged up and unable to function is a fate worse than death.

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Weizmann Institute of Science

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